MARVEL UK
THE MIGHTY WORLD OF BRITISH BRONZE AGE MARVEL

1975 - 1977
EXPANSION, MERGERS - AND CAPTAIN BRITAIN !

 

 

Continued from 1972 - 1974 : SETTING UP MARVEL UK

This is a revised version of a text originally compiled in 2009.
Special thanks to Robin Kirby for some valuable corrections and additional input.

All dates given are cover dates unless specified
Click on covers for larger images


 
THE FAILED SWORD AND SORCERY EXPANSION
 
In March 1975, the two weeklies Dracula Lives and Planet of the Apes were joined by a third non-superhero title, The Savage Sword of Conan. In the USA, Marvel's successful new diversification had in fact been spearheaded by Robert E. Howard's fantasy king Conan the Cimmerian with the highly successful Conan the Barbarian #1, launched in October 1970.
 



Savage Sword of Conan #1
(8 March 1975)

  So far, Marvel UK had launched five titles onto the British comic book market, all of which had been tremendously successful. However, two and a half years after its formation, the editors would now see their sixth title take an entirely different path as Savage Sword of Conan was cancelled in July 1975 after a mere 18 issues and only four months' presence on the newsstands. This was in sharp contrast to Conan's success in Marvel's home market, where Conan the Barbarian lasted for a staggering 275 issues from October 1970 to December 1993 and built up a loyal readership, not the least due to the long stints of writer Roy Thomas (who penned issues #1-115 and #241-253) and penciller John Buscema (who provided the art for issues #25-190).

But Marvel USA was faced with far more severe problems than seeing one of its established American titles fail overseas. For the House of Ideas, times were bad to say the least. The comic book industry's traditional retail outlets - small community stores and newsagents - were increasingly being replaced by large stores which were not interested in selling comics, and together with rising paper prices which were cutting into earnings, Marvel USA had lost $2 million by mid-1975.

 
In response to this financial crisis, Cadence Industries Corporation - the owner of Marvel since 1968 - drastically reduced the number of titles produced and reorganized sales and distribution, and Marvel would spend the rest of the 1970s basically cutting back on expenses and new publications in an effort to remain profitable (Daniels, 1991).

However (and perhaps surprisingly enough) the cancellation of Savage Sword of Conan in Great Britain was not, at the heart of things, connected to Marvel's problems in the US - simply because the international marketing of Marvel material had by now virtually become a separate business operation as the owner of Trans World (the company which had been selling Marvel's work in countries other than the US since the 1960s) was now also the president of Marvel Comics: Al Landau.

 
Through this personification of interests, the focus on international sales sometimes seemingly even went as far as almost highjacking Marvel US, as Marv Wolfman (editor-in-chief at Marvel in 1975/76) has pointed out.

"This was when Cadence was running things, and the person in charge of Cadence separately had a deal to sell material overseas and was making money every time we sold stuff overseas, which is why so many books came out, but as quickly as - I think - they discovered what would sell overseas they'd either cancel or not cancel a book, and sometimes it had nothing to do with how it was selling here [in the US]. But that money went directly to them, so I did not like Cadence very much, they seemed to just take advantage of the Marvel material without careing to fix or help or spend some money to make it work." (Siuntres, 2006)

Whilst Marvel UK therefore had obviously buried the idea of a separate sword and sorcery weekly, the character himself survived the cut.

 



Avengers #95
(12 July 1975)

 
Conan was immediately transfered to the pages of The Avengers as of issue #95 in mid-July 1975 - at the cost of Dr Strange, who would only make sporadic comebacks after this demise, mostly in conjunction with the Defenders which themselves would feature (due to the Hulk's affiliation with this team) in some later issues of MWOM.
 
BACK TO SUPERHEROES
 
The most successful new venture Marvel US was able to launch in that troublesome year of 1975 was the introduction of the new X-Men, which would become the company's most popular franchise and open up new markets both in the States and abroad. Most importantly for the House of Ideas, the superhero theme once again showed future potential for becoming a strong seller at a time when - in sharp contrast - Marvel's grand pandemonium of horror titles virtually collapsed in mass cancellations in 1975 (Wymann, 2010). The industry was suffering, but the classic Marvel comic characters were proving a solid base for retreat.

Launched the same week as the ill-fated Savage Sword of Conan, Super-Heroes marked a nomen est omen return to the superhero format, but the title differed significantly from the other superhero weeklies.

 



Super-Heroes #1
(8 March 1975)

  It started out with reprints of the 1960's Silver Surfer (who featured almost exclusively on the first twenty covers) and X-Men material and, having only two character features in every issue, actually offered complete story runs for the X-Men (the Surfer stories had to be divided up because the first seven issues of Silver Surfer were produced as "extra-size" books with 38 to 40 pages).

From a mid-1970s viewpoint, Super-Heroes was a weekly comic book catering for a markedly less mainstream readership than Mighty World of Marvel or Spider-Man Weekly, as both the Silver Surfer and the X-Men had a distinctively smaller (although often highly enthusiastic) following amongst readers at that time than Marvel's main characters which were already featured in the existing line of Marvel UK weeklies.

 



Super-Heroes #43
(27 December 1975)

 
This "Marvel special interest" focus was taken even further - indeed almost to the level of "niche market interest" - as of Super-Heroes #23 in August 1975, when the X-Men were joined by a character well-known for his pulp magazine appearances but certainly less so for his life as a Marvel comic book character: Doc Savage. In the States, the "Man of Bronze" had been a very limited success for the House of Ideas in 1972, and three years later he only lasted for five issues in the UK. Super-Heroes returned to Silver Surfer and X-Men stories only for three issues before tapping even deeper into Marvel's second and third row of characters when the Surfer was dropped in favour of two very minor Marvel characters in the form of Ant-Man (who soon featured in his second guise as Giant-Man) and The Cat for Super-Heroes #31.

Whilst Ant-Man was the second Marvel superhero (launched in 1962 only weeks after the Fantastic Four, but without much success), the Cat was a decidedly obscure heroine who had only lasted for four bi-monthly issues in 1972/73 on Marvel's home market. To insiders, Super-Heroes was throwing just about anything from Marvel's cellar at the British market, even if the original material was very limited in quantity from the start (as was the case with the Cat) and Marvel UK would therefore be running out of pages to reprint very quickly. This editorial practice - which clearly worked outside the framework of whether a character would meet with success or not - would definitely seem to be a strong point in support of the critical views expressed about Trans-World by Marv Wolfman and others, including Roy Thomas:

"Al Landau, not one of my favorite people, succeeded [Stan Lee] as president of Marvel. His company, Trans World, had been selling Marvel's work in other countries. (...) The only time Al and I were on the same side (and it took me a minute to realize why) was when both of us wanted to get back one of the pages of story we had lost in our books. I wanted the page back just because I wanted it back, for better stories—and he wanted it because then his company Trans World could sell another page abroad. We had a community of interest only that once during the year or so he was there and I was Editor-in-Chief." (Lee & Thomas, 1998)

 



The Titans #1
(24 October 1975)

  In late October 1975, Marvel UK added another weekly title to its range of publications (the seventh in total and the fifth superhero mag) when The Titans was launched. Unlike Super-Heroes, this weekly introduced a number of well-known Marvel characters, such as Captain America, Captain Marvel, the Sub-Mariner, the Inhumans, and Marvel's Bondesque Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

But the real novelty of Titans was its landscape format, which made it possible to reprint two original pages side by side on one page. Whilst this meant more reprint material per issue for Titans readers, it did result in an overall layout where the individual panels of a story became awfully small.

 
Meanwhile, Super-Heroes dug even further into the back row of Marvel characters when Doc Savage was replaced by the Scarecrow in Super-Heroes #41 in December 1975. The obscurity of some of the characters featured in this weekly and the resulting scarcity of original material made frequent changes unavoidable after only a few issues, and Super-Heroes #45 saw a major change in the line-up of characters as the X-Men and Scarecrow were dropped and replaced by Bloodstone and the Thing.
 
1976 - THE YEAR OF THE MERGERS
 
So far, Marvel UK had enjoyed an extended run of market expansion which had been marred only slightly by the unsuccessful launch of the Conan title. Furthermore, the failure of the sword and sorcery genre could be explained reasonably well and, in any case, left no bruises whatsoever on the other weeklies. However, in February 1976, Marvel UK was faced with the first faltering superhero title as Super-Heroes was cancelled after precisely 50 issues, and even though this demise was to a certain degree foreseeable - Super-Heroes had always had a limited scope due to its formula of using mainly niche characters - it would not, unlike the Conan failure, remain an isolated event without any effect on the rest of Marvel UK.

The harsh reality of early 1976 was that the British comic book market was overshadowed by a British economy in a state of trauma and not a glimpse of better times ahead at all. Following an inflation rate which had climbed to 20+% in 1975 and led the Wall Street Journal to publish a provocative article with the headline Goodbye, Great Britain in April 1975 (Wanninski, 1975), the value of the British pound sterling began to slide during the first quarter of 1976. By September confidence in the pound had virtually collapsed, and the British government was forced to seek help from the International Monetary Fund. At the time, this was an option otherwise familiar for third world countries, although it has now once again become a scenario applicable to European countries with the 2011/12 Euro crisis and the near financial collapse of Greece. Back in 1975, the political crisis in the wake of that economic downturn left Britain in a state of gloom and a climate of mistrust (Burk, 1992).

 
In short: Marvel UK found itself in an extremely hostile market environment, and the only point this held in favour for the House of Ideas was that dismal economic and political outlooks feed people's need for escapism - and that was just what Marvel was selling. Regarding the cancellation of Super-Heroes as a weekly title, it followed the same pattern of publishing procedure which had already been used when the Conan weekly title failed: the title character was incorporated into another book, and that comic book's title was expanded to include the new addition. And so, just as Conan had been merged into the title of The Avengers (which thereafter became The Avengers and the Savage Sword of Conan), Super-Heroes was given an extended lease of life when Spectacular Spider-Man Weekly #158 saw its title extended to Spectacular Spider-Man Weekly and the Super-Heroes in February 1976. In addition, the favourite neighbourhood webslinger's weekly title was converted to the landscape format used for Titans.  



Super Spider-Man with the Super-Heroes #158
(21 February 1976)

 
This pattern of merging two previously independent titles and their characters into one weekly comic book would become the mould for future economies and cutbacks which Marvel UK would make - and 1976 would provide ample need to do so. It is worth noting that this editorial procedure was in essence completely alien to Marvel's home market, where titles and characters as a rule either made it or got cancelled (Kirby, 2011).

By now, Marvel UK was rolling with the punches and went into an extremely flee floating publishing mode to brave the gale, even though this meant throwing overboard large parts of the in-title continuity and consistency of more and more of its weekly titles. As a result, readers were often faced with nothing less than a merry-go-round of characters and merged titles. In March 1976, the X-Men were moved to Titans (issue #22), yet only a month later the same weekly title provided a new home for the Fantastic Four, who moved to Titans as of issue #27 from Mighty World of Marvel - where they were replaced by the X-Men as of issue #187.

 



Planet of the Apes #88 merges Dracula Lives into its pages
(23 June 1976)

  Whilst this was still only switching around a few characters from one title to the other, Marvel UK would soon be forced to make actual cuts, and the first took place in June 1976 when Dracula Lives! was cancelled as a weekly title and merged with Planet of the Apes as of issue #88.

In the true Marvel style of selling necessity as virtue, the cover featured the headline:

"And now: The long-awaited merger of Marvel's mightiest mags!"

This line of thought was further ramified by an introductory page in Planet of the Apes and Dracula Lives #88 which reached the conclusion that turning two weeklies into one - featuring the Planet of the Apes stories and Ka-Zar from the origional POTA line-up and Dracula and Man-Thing from the original cast of regulars featured in Dracula Lives! - was "clearly consolidating the Marvel age of comics!".

 



Editorial page featured in Planet of the Apes #88 on the merger with Dracula Lives!

 
However, even the truest of true believers amongst Marvel UK's readership realised that the term "consolidation" referred entirely to the publisher's output and was used synonymously with cutting down on the number of titles in order to counteract dropping sales figures when one of the most popular of Marvel's superhero teams, the Avengers, lost their own weekly title in mid-July 1976.
 



The Avengers #148
the final issue
(14 July 1976)

  After the incorporation of Conan into the pages of The Avengers, the weekly had featured its title's heroes, Conan, and Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu, who - as before - took turns with another martial arts hero, Iron Fist. When Marvel UK had merged Planet of the Apes and Dracula Lives!, it had been a fairly clear fifty-fifty cut between the two titles. Now, with The Avengers, Marvel UK was faced with a weekly which was already very diverse as it had already been the subject of a merger.

As a result, two features (the Avengers and Conan) were carried over into the pages of Mighty World of Marvel - which already had four feature characters. Despite the X-Men being dropped, MWOM now ran five characters. As a result, the lenghth of the instalments per issue for each of these had to be shortened to around 6 pages, but due to the weekly publication schedule, readers would still get more pages per month than their fellow American Marvelites.

 



Mighty World of Marvel #199 merges The Avengers
(21 July 1976)

 
Marvel UK was thus still catching up on original material - a fact which was rapidly becoming a substantial editorial problem for main characters such as Spider-Man or the Hulk and already necessitated the reprint of stories from Marvel Team-Up for Spidey or black and white material from Rampaging Hulk.

The need for mergers created an ever increasing volatility in the line-up of characters featured in Marvel UK's weekly publications. Although not a negative point per se, the declining number of truly regular characters did cause confusion and even irritation amongst the readers.

Just how unstable things had become was made evident by the fact that the Avengers only lasted for 13 issues of Mighty World of Marvel before ceding their place to Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, as of MWOM #212 (20 October 1976). The Avengers, in turn, were transferred to the pages of Super Spider-Man and the Titans.

 



Mighty World of Marvel #210 - Penultimate stand of the Avengers
(6 October 1976)

  The line between enjoyable diversity and chaotic discontinuity was becoming evidently thin - although the one thing Marvel did do really well until the end of the 1970s was to pick to up the continuity of a series exactly after the point that an earlier comic had stopped (Kirby, 2011).

Into this rather delicate state of affairs, Stan Lee stepped in and - together with the powers at work in the House of Ideas - entrusted the editorial reigns of Marvel UK to someone he knew and could rely upon: his younger brother Larry Lieber, and this move was even deemed worthy of a few words in Stan Lee's monthly "soapbox" column in the US publication output:

"Larrupin' Larry Lieber (...) has also come aboard to handle the issues which we produce for an ever-growing army of Marvel fanatics in Great Britain. Wouldja believe they're on sale weekly over there; so we're bettin' that Larry'll be kinda busy." (Lee, 1977)

 



Mighty World of Marvel #212 - Luke Cage replaces the Avengers
(30 October 1976)

 
The personal recollections of Lieber regarding this job assignment indicate that there were a number of difficulties other than pure sales figures which Marvel UK was up against:

"After a while, Stan offered me [Larry Lieber] a job as editor of Marvel's British department. I remember that the previous editor had given demerits to people. He'd say, "Frank Giacoia is late," and he'd tell him, "You're getting a blue dot," or "a yellow dot." Can you imagine how Frank reacted to getting a dot? Still, it was a nice department, and gee, the people and names I haven't thought of in years. Duffy...? - [Roy Thomas:] Duffy Vohland. And Dave Kraft. - [Larry Lieber:] Yes. Mike Esposito came in occasionally, and Danny Fingeroth. And Bob Budiansky. They became my assistants." (Thomas, 1999)

Until now, the staff working for Marvel UK had produced no original material other than the aforementioned covers and splash pages. But following Lieber's start as editor in chief in September 1976, Marvel UK made a fundamental change to its publication strategy by launching its own original hero in October 1976 - Captain Britain.

 
BRITAIN'S VERY OWN MARVEL SUPERHERO - CAPTAIN BRITAIN !
 
The gloomy British economy of 1976 significantly increased the popularity and sales figures of various war genre comic books (another popular and well established escapist topic which presented its characters in situations of hardship and struggle yet ultimately saw them end in victory). Marvel UK noticed that a number of rival British publishers launched weekly war titles, and its UK-based editor Neil Tennant suggested creating an original British Marvel war comic along the lines of Sgt Fury to compete with titles such as Warlord and Battle (Harvey, 2006).
 



In-house advertising for Captain Britain on the back cover of Mighty World of Marvel #210
(6 October 1976)

  The House of Ideas, faced with Tennant's suggestion, came to the conclusion that the time was indeed right for some original content within Marvel UK's line but discarded the war theme in favour of a superhero title, and to make a point of it, came up with a character whose name said it all: Captain Britain. In addition, the parallelisms to Captain America - a true beacon flying the colours of his country - were more than obvious.

Captain Britain #1 hit the newsagent stands on 13 October 1976, featuring an eight page colour story titled "The origin of Captain Britain" penned by Chris Claremont, drawn by Herb Trimpe, inked by Fred Kida, coloured by Marie Severin, and lettered by Irving Watanabe. The cover was pencilled by the new editor in chief for Marvel UK, Larry Lieber, and inked by Frank Giacoia. In addition to the main character story, Captain Britain featured standard black and white reprints of Nick Fury plus the Fantastic Four.

The main artistic team of this first original British Marvel material had a rather low-level linkage to the UK. Whilst Chris Claremont, although a US citizen, was born in London, Herb Trimpe's ties to the British isles was a holiday spent there. Obviously, they together with the editors tried to infuse as much Britishness as possible into the title, and although some things worked, such as British spelling variants being observed in the text, others did not, such as fairly obvious mistakes in British police uniform design or the City of London's general landscape.

 
This is explained more than anything else by the simple fact that the work on the material was carried out entirely in the US before the final pasted up pages and negatives for the printing plates were shipped across the Atlantic (harvey, 2006). At the end of the day, Captain Britain was thus a purely American view of what a British superhero should look and be like, and unfortunately, the individual artists involved were unable to connect to this foreign setting and plot as closely and as well as e.g. Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan in their work for Tomb of Dracula. In the end, this would prove to be a substantial shortcoming.
 



Captain Britain #1
(13 October 1976)

  Not surprisingly, the first appearance of Captain Britain had the compressed feeling of an early 1960s comic book story, due to its limited length of only seven pages and Claremont's determination to get somewhere fast. Britain's own superhero enters the scene in a flash, i.e. right in the midst of a fight scene, and readers quickly discover that this par force entry puts them on equal terms with Captain Britain, who himself seemingly hasn't the faintest clue about who he is or what he is doing fighting an armour-clad evildoer ("I -- I'm unbeatable! But how? Why?"). As he forces himself to cast his mind back to how everything started, the flashback tells readers that he is Brian Braddock, a physics student from London's (fictional) Thames University who works as assistant at the Darkmoor Nuclear Research Centre. The center is attacked by a super villain called The Reaver with the intention of kidnapping all the scientists for his evil schemes. In the ensuing confusion, Braddock is able to escape by jumping onto a motorcycle but then loses control of his bike and careens off a cliff.  



The fight between Cap Britain and the Reaver in Captain Britain #1

 
Although his motorcycle bursts into flames, he somehow survives and then becomes aware of a bearded figure floating in the sky who is revealed to be Merlin. Braddock is told that he is in an ancient circle of power and offered a choice between two magical artefacts: the Sword of Might and the Amulet of Right. He wisely choses the amulet, after which Merlin declares him to be Britain's champion and infuses him with mystical energy, giving him superhuman powers on the inside and a superhero suit on the outside. To complete his outfit, he is also given the Star Sceptre, which has various useful powers of its own. Braddock then wakes up, downs the Reaver, and Captain Britain is in the superhero business.
 
Claremont continued to script the adventures of Captain Britain for the first ten issues before Gary Friedrich took over with Captain Britain #11 (22 December 1976), joined by Larry Lieber as co-writer as of issue #24. Friedrich quit after Captain Britain #36 (15 June 1977), and left Lieber, Bob Budiansky and Jim Lawrence to pen the final three issues before the title was cancelled.

The artwork was entrusted to Trimpe before John Buscema took over together with inker Tom Palmer as of Captain Britain #24 (23 March 1977) before passing on the job to Ron Wilson with issue #31 (11 May 1977), inked by Fred Kida, Pablo Marcos and Brian Moore.

 

 
In spite of a few nice touches - such as having real-life Prime Minister James Callaghan briefed by Nick Fury of a Nazi plan by the Red Skull to take over Great Britain in Captain Britain #17 (2 February 1977) or even kidnapped and sentenced to death, by firing squad, alongside Captain Britain and Captain America, before making his escape in issue # 21 (2 March 1977) - both the plot and the artwork of Captain Britain generally seem rather lacklustre and lukewarm with very little to spark real enthusiasm amongst readers.
 



Captain Britain in-house "pin-up"

  Given the views of artist Herb Trimpe on the series, this, however, would hardly seem surprising:

"I rarely refused work which was offered to me, and so I accepted the job. I thought [Captain Britain] was a really stupid idea, but there was a paycheck in it... (...) I'm no longer quite sure about who created the original costume but John Romita comes to my mind. He worked at the Marvel office at the time and seemed to end up with all of those odd jobs (...) I thought it was a stupid idea in the sense that I didn't believe that a superhero could be popular in England. Superheroes leave you with a very distinct cultural impression: very American, very strong, very much fly-in-your-face. I never considered myself to be part of the process of creating Captain Britain. I always enjoyed my work, and this was part of a day's work. I'm amazed that so many years later the character still attracts this amount of attention." (NN, 2005)

 



Captain Britain #39, final issue
(6 July 1977)

 
Having a unique Marvel superhero with a national theme and setting secured good sales figures for Captain Britain at first, but the novelty attraction wore off fairly soon as many readers came to realise that they were being served rather inferior fare which really was no match for what otherwise filled the weeklies of Marvel UK. As a consequence, the title faltered and was cancelled after 39 weekly issues in July 1977.
 



Captain Britain Annual 1978

  Most importantly, the House of Ideas had failed to take into account that the costumed superhero concept is indeed (as pointed out by Trimpe with regard to Captain Britain) a highly idiosyncratic American popular culture view of the world and its own nation - a fact established both from an inside view (Lawrence & Jewett, 2002) and an outside perspective (Mikhaylova, 2006).

Whilst the attitude of viewing one's own country in this "super power" context is not, of course, completely unknown in Britain, it is set into completely different forms. By general perception, the (often implicitly but occasionally even explicitly imperial) "Best of Britain" is most adequately portrayed by iconic figures such as Sherlock Holmes and James Bond - or, on the comic book level, war stories and heroes.

 



Captain Britain Special
(1981)

 
The home based British side of Marvel UK was aware of this, and it is no surprise that Neil Tennant suggested the creation of a new original Marvel war title.

Perhaps the New York side of the business was unaware of the existing popular culture differences when they came up with Captain Britain instead, or maybe they were just trying out something new but found themselves really quite ahead of their tim. Many years later, international heroes would become a fairly common thing at Marvel, but they would still act out their adventures in a predominantly American setting and context.

 
THE GREAT FLUX OF LATE 1976
 
The fact that the last quarter of 1976 had kicked off with the launch of the unique Captain Britain partly disguised the real market situation which Marvel UK was facing. In actual fact, it had been a terrible year so far - a year which had seen the cancellation of no less than three weekly titles and thus a cut of no less than one third of the total publication output.
 



The Titans #58
(24 November 1976)

  On top of this, there had been so many editorial changes to the contents featured in the remaining titles that these were in real danger of losing a recognisable profile for the readership - almost everything, it seemed, was in a spin. And worst of all, the remaining three months were not going to improve the situation at all.

Once the glittering sparks of the fireworks in conjunction with the launch of Captain Britain had settled and the smoke was clearing, readers found themselves face to face again with the grim reality of the everyday comic book market - and the cancellation of yet another Marvel UK weekly. Launched only 13 months ago, The Titans #58 became the final issue on 24 November 1976.

 
The pages of this weekly had played host, for example, to the Avengers since they had been moved there from Mighty World of Marvel, but as this had only taken place a few weeks earlier, it was another example of just how flexible readers were asked to be in some cases if they wanted to follow the adventures of a specific character.

As with Super-Heroes before, the title Titans was immediately tagged onto Super Spider-Man weekly (now at the cost of the previously merged title), which thus became Super Spider-Man and the Titans as of issue #199 on 1 December 1976. Thanks to the landscape format Marvel UK was able to cram a large number of characters into this title, and the weekly now featured the incredible line-up of Spider-Man, the Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man, the Thing, and the Invaders.

 



Super Spider-Man with the Titans #199
(1 December 1976)

 
But even after these cancellations and mergers, the last month of 1976 did not wind down to a leisurely festive season as The Mighty World of Marvel - Marvel UK's flagship title together with the Spider-Man weekly - underwent yet another major reshuffle.
 



Mighty World of Marvel #220
(15 December 1976)

  As Conan the Barbarian - who had travelled a long way from his own title to a guest spot in The Avengers and finally a second row seat in MWOM in only 21 months - was dropped from the pages of Mighty World of Marvel #220, Hero for Hire Luke Cage's presence was reinforced, whilst a new feature was presented: Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos. The MWOM old-timers Hulk (who still claimed prominent status as to the title branding of the weekly) and Daredevil hung on.

Sword and sorcery, it seemed, was definitely not a favourite with Marvel's British readership, and one couoldn't help but think back to UK based editor Neil Tennant's proposals for original material when reading the blurb on the cover:

"BECAUSE YOU DEMANDED IT! THE PREMIERE OF A GIANT NEW WAR SERIES!"
"
ACTION PACKED TALES FROM THE BATTLEFIELDS OF WORLD WAR II !"

The penny, it seemed, had finally dropped, but instead of creating new original material for the British market, Marvel UK was reaching back to its established military personnel.

 
As the year 1976 was drawing to a close, Marvel UK had been in business for four years and three months. The British imprint had successfully established itself throughout this period, but now the first subtle signs of a general backswing became visible.
 
1977: MORE MERGERS - AND NEW WEEKLIES
 
The new year started just as the old one had ended: with more changes for Mighty World of Marvel, which welcomed yet another new member to its now seemingly ever-changing cast of characters in the form of Captain Marvel, who premiered in issue #223 (5 January 1977) "by popular demand" and shared the pages of MWOM with the Hulk, Daredevil, Luke Cage and Sgt Fury for the time being.
 



Mighty World of Marvel #223
(5 January 1977)

  However, the next major shake-up for Marvel UK's already thinned out line of weeklies was just around the corner and came about in February and March 1977, when the once highly popular Planet of the Apes ceased to be published after its 123rd issue (26 February 1977) and was merged into Mighty World of Marvel as of issue #231 (2 March 1977).

POTA was quintessentially a movie tie-in product and as such clearly moved outside the regular circles of the Marvel universe - but with the added potential of appealing to readers which might not have read a Marvel comic book otherwise. Having itself merged the Marvel UK horror genre title Dracula Lives! in June 1976, the overall comic book market situation now led Marvel UK to combine this niche title with its first superhero weekly, MWOM.

"YOUR MIGHTY MARVEL FAVOURITES -- TOGETHER FOR THE FIRST TIME !"

 



Mighty World of Marvel #231
(2 March 1977)

 
At the end of the day, however - and in spite of the classic Marvel rhetoric on the cover - it was all down to a case of trial and error. One reason for merging POTA into MWOM was that, despite this cut, the number of weeklies published by Marvel UK would remain stable, because only three weeks after the final issue of Planet of the Apes, Marvel launched a new weekly title on 16 March 1977 - Fury.
 



In-house advert for Fury
(March 1977)

  The New York offices of the House of Ideas had, it seemed, finally listened to the Britain-based editorial staff of Marvel UK, who knew the English comic book market well enough to understand that the lack of any war comics was keeping Marvel out of a highly popular segment of the business. Unfortunately, Fury showed a distinct and almost complete lack of knowledge regarding the differences between the US and the UK culture of this genre. For once, Marvel was completely out of its depth.

It started with the title itself, which was derived from the fact that the weekly consisted of reprints from Marvel's Sgt Fury and his Howlin' Commandos - a title and character known to only a few in Britain, Fury quite likely made most potential comic book buyers first of all think of the popular black stallion from the 1960s TV series.

 



Fury #1
(16 March 1977)

 
In terms of content, Marvel UK's attempt at creating a viable competition to established war weeklies such as Warlord, Battle or Commando quickly fell short because the American portrayal of a US Army Sergeant and his unit was not what the market wanted.

British war comics at the time were characterized by a highly British (and unashamedly nationalistic) storytelling focus, which very often featured the "Tommy spirit" as its recurring theme: British officers and soldiers caught up in seemingly hopeless situations but who eventually managed to turn the tables on their adversaries thanks to their bravery and wit. This was a completely different type of plot compared to Sgt Fury who would literally blast his way through any kind of problem.

In June 1977 Marvel UK dropped the Savage Simians from its line completely after their last appearance in Mighty World of Marvel #246 (15 June 1977) - not the least due to the fact that Marvel UK had basically run out of material to print (Kirby, 2011) - a major headache for editorial all across the board now as the weekly formula virtually drained the existing US material in some cases.

 



Mighty World of Marvel #247
(22 June 1977)

  As a result, Mighty World of Marvel saw itself virtually spinning with characters coming and going.

The first to resurface was Dracula, who made his return in Mighty World of Marvel #247 (22 June 1977) after having been on hold following the cancellation of Planet of the Apes and Dracula Lives! three months earlier - a move with which Marvel UK gained an extra three months' worth of additional original US material (Kirby, 2011).

Thus taking the place of the feature which had merged his own weekly a year ago in June 1976, Dracula - who had only featured on the cover of one single issue of POTA - also managed to take center stage on the cover of Mighty World of Marvel, and he also featured prominently alongside the Hulk in the weekly's sub-title for a while.

 



Mighty World of Marvel #256
(24 August 1977)

 
Things were steadily going downhill for Marvel UK, and another severe blow was the cancellation of Captain Britain's own weekly title after Captain Britain #39 (6 July 1977). In spite of a clear drop in popularity, Britain's first original Marvel superhero was retained, got an own annual for 1978 (Kirby, 2011), and immediately found a new home in the pages of Super Spider-Man and the Titans, which thus became Super Spider-Man & Captain Britain as of issue #231 (13 July 1977).
 



Super Spider-Man and Captain Britain #231
(13 July 1977)

  Captain Britain had already lost his privilege to colour in his own book as of issue #24 in March 1977 (Kirby, 2011), and now he had to share the pages of a weekly with Spider-Man, the Avengers and Captain America. At least he was in good company, and whilst everything else was reprints, the 7-page Captain Britain stories still featured new original material.

Having to downgrade their one and only source of original material from its own weekly title to playing host in the weekly of Marvel's most successful character, Spider-Man, left no room for benevolent interpretation of the facts: Marvel UK was gradually losing its strong position on the market and slowly getting dangerously close to slipping into a back bench role.

And there still wasn't the slightest hint of a silver lining in sight when August 1977 rolled around and Marvel UK had to pull the plug on Fury after a mere five months and 25 issues.

 



Fury #25
(31 August 1977)

 



Mighty World of Marvel #258
(7 September 1977)

  The reasons for the failure of this attempt to cut into the war themed slice of the UK comic book market have already been pointed out, but rather than opting out completely, the editorial staff in NYC decided to do things in the by now established tradition of Marvel UK, i.e. have the main character of a cancelled weekly title transferred to another title - preferably MWOM.

This was precisely what happened, as Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos were duly transferred to the pages of Mighty World of Marvel #258 (7 September 1977) the week after cancellation of Fury. This move precipitated the end for Dracula, whilst the established Daredevil was untouched (sporadically even featuring on covers), remaining on the weekly together with Captain Marvel. In fact, "Fury" (sometimes also "Sgt Fury") would remain the second billing on the title side by side with the Hulk right up until Mighty World of Marvel #297.

 



Mighty World of Marvel #263
(13 October 1977)

 
The last days of September finally brought back some positive energy to Marvel UK which switched from cancelling and merging titles to putting out a new weekly in the form of The Complete Fantastic Four #1 (28 September 1977).

Contrary to the almost stillborn Fury, this new weekly title showcased Marvel's best known and most successful team: the Fantastic Four. Despite this status, the FF had so far lived a life in the second row of Marvel UK's weeklies and featured in many different titles. The long list featured the original Spider-Man weekly, then Titans and Captain Britain. From this latter, they finally moved on to their very own weekly title - and their own it truly was, as the "Complete" referred to the fact that, quite unlike the established formula for Marvel's British reprints, this weekly contained only FF material.

Complete Fantastic Four #1 featured the reprint of the entire US Fantastic Four #133 (April 1973) and a part of US Fantastic Four #1 (November 1961), and the following issues would continue from here with complete issue reprints of the more recent material (i.e. Fantastic Four #134 in Complete Fantastic Four #2) and serialized installments over three issues from the classic Silver Age FF books (i.e. Fantastic Four #1 spread out over Complete Fantastic Four #1-3).

 



Complete Fantastic Four #1
(28 September 1977)

 



Rampage #1
(19 October 1977)

  Only a fortnight later, on 19 October 1977, Marvel UK boosted itself with yet another new weekly when Rampage #1 hit the newsagent stands. Its subtitle explained to a large extent what the new book was all about: "starring the Daring Defenders", the issue also began "the power-packed adventures of the man called Nova".

Taking up the new publishing format launched with Complete Fantastic Four, Rampage featured the reprint of a complete US Defenders issue every week (whilst Nova remained serialized).

The book was aimed outright at cashing in further on the popularity of the Hulk, which was on a par with the success enjoyed in Britain by Spider-Man, whilst at the same time re-introducing well known and liked characters such as Dr Strange and the Sub-Mariner as members of this "non-team".

 



The Savage Sword of Conan (vol. 2) #1
(November 1977)

 
And finally, as all good things come in threes, Marvel UK seemed to defy the still dire market situation by launching a third new title in three consecutive months.

This was especially noteworthy as it heralded the return of a character who had previously enjoyed but very soon lost his own weekly title and then faded almost exactly a year ago from the ranks of Marvel UK after appearances in two other titles: Conan the Barbarian.

This time around, The Savage Sword of Conan (vol.2) presented itself in a completely different form: the 52 pages which were set in a magazine format and published monthly rather than weekly were clearly aimed at a more adult readership. This framwork was largely predefined through the original material which Savage Sword of Conan now reprinted and which came from the black and white magazine format title of the same name which was first published by Curtis Magazines (an imprint of Marvel Comics) in the USA in 1974. As a "magazine" rather than a "comic book", the US Savage Sword of Conan did not need to conform to the Comics Code Authority restrictions on e.g. violence and nudity and thus became a publication of choice for many creative talents who sought to break out of the "comics for nine year olds" segment of the medium, such as writer-editor Roy Thomas and noteable artists like Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema, Jim Starlin, and others. The publication also differed clearly from standard comic books through the use of painted covers, which often showcased the work of noted illustrators such as Earl Norem, Bob Larkin, and Joe Jusko. The material reprinted in the UK Savage Sword of Conan Mk II came from this source, which itself enjoyed a tremendously popular and long run of 235 issues in the USA before cancellation in July 1995. Marvel UK's version enjoyed similar longevity by British market standards, running for 93 monthly issues up until July 1985. Due to its format and content, Savage Sword of Conan vol. 2 is to be seen completely outside the regular 1970s output of Marvel UK but is certainly worth noting, given the success the title enjoyed.

 
After three months of seemingly carefree success with the launch of an equal number of new titles, the last month of 1977 reminded Marvel UK of the difficult situation the British comic book market was still in. And this time, the blow really hurt as Super Spider-Man and Captain Britain #253 brought about the final end of Captain Britain in December 1977 after the title had lasted for 22 issues since the Capatin had lost his own weekly title in July. Once again and as usual in the meantime, the comic was retitled (now back to a simple Super Spider-Man) and Britain's own superhero would not be seen for some time.

Sobering as this must have been for the editors and planners of Marvel UK, their original creation for the British market at least bowed out in style with a six issues finale, written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by John Byrne, which featured both Spider-Man and Captain Britain. In an amusing twist of things going opposite ways, this story would eventually be colourised and reprinted for the US market in Marvel Team-Up #65 & 66 (January / February 1978). Up to this point, the character had appeared exclusively in Marvel's UK comics, but through this two issue arc, Claremont introduced him to an international audience whilst fully integrating him into the Marvel Universe.

At the end of 1977, Marvel UK was forced to look back on two very difficult years. The counter-attack, so to speak, had been launched with the three new titles throughout the autumn, but the short life and almost unprotested demise of its original creation - Britain's very own Marvel superhero - made it very uncertain what exactly the British side of the House of Ideas would be up against during the last quarter of the Bronze Age 1970s.

 

 

PART THREE
1978 - 1979 : GOING TRULY BRITISH

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

BURK Kathleen (1992) Goodbye, Great Britain: The 1976 IMF Crisis, Yale University Press

DANIELS Les (1991) Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics, Harry N. Abrams

HARVEY Allan (2006) The newest and greatest superhero of all, originally published in Gorilla Daze Blog, available on-line and accessed 15 June 2009 at www.thefifthbranch.com/gorilladaze/?p=13

KIRBY Robin (2011) personal communication

LAWRENCE John Shelton & JEWETT Robert. (2002) The Myth of the American Superhero, Eerdmans

LEE Stan (1977) Stan's Soapbox, September 1977, Marvel Comics

LEE Stan & THOMAS Roy (1998) Stan the man & Roy the boy: A conversation between Stan Lee and Roy Thomas, originally published in Comic Book Artist (issue 2), available on-line and accessed 4 September 2007 at www.twomorrows.com/comicbookartist/articles/02stanroy.html

MIKHAYLOVA Larisa. (2006) Superheroes in American Culture, Power Point presentation available on-line and accessed 17 June 2009 at www.rsacs.journ.msu.ru/pub/Superheroes in American Culture.ppt

N. N. (2009) 5 questions a... Herb Trimpe, originally published in Comicbox, available on-line and accessed 16 June 2009 at www.www.comicbox.com/index.php/category/5-questions/ (personal translation from French)

SIUNTRES John (2006) Marv Wolfman by Night, transcribed from the podcast Word Balloon: The Comic Creator's Interview Show, available online at wordballoon.libsyn.com

THOMAS Roy (1999) A conversation with artist-writer Larry Lieber, originally published in Alter Ego (volume 3, issue 2), available on-line and accessed 15 June 2009 at www.twomorrows.com/alterego/articles/02lieber.html

WANNINSKI Jude (1975) Goodbye, Great Britain, originally published in The Wall Street Journal (April 29 1975 issue), available on-line and accessed 20 May 2009 at www.polyconomics.com/ssu/ssu-010720.htm

WYMANN Adrian (2010) Superheroes from the Crypt - Marvel's Bronze Age World of Horror, available online at www.panelology.info/SuperHeroesFromTheCrypt.html

 

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The illustrations presented here are copyright material
and are reproduced for strictly non-commercial and appreciative review purposes only.
Text is (c) 2009-2012 Adrian Wymann

 

 

page first published on the internet 24 July 2009
page moved to panelology.info 12 January 2010
edited and updated 27 February 2012