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for Thursday, November 25, 2004

Might World of Marvel

Writing about a 30-year-old comic book might seem like an odd choice for a Thanksgiving column, but THE MIGHTY WORLD OF MARVEL - though not this issue specifically - represents an important part of my career in comics, a career I owe pretty much to Roy Thomas, one of the best editors and writers ever to work in the industry. Today's TOT is sort of a "thank you" to Roy.

My friends and family - and especially my Sainted Wife Barb - have always been supportive of my writing, not an easy thing given the ups and too-frequent downs of my career. Some rude folks might call them enable-ers, but, if they ever do that within range of my hearing, they can expect to receive some hurting.

Since before my teens, making comic books has been what I've wanted to do. It was in the fall of 1972 that Roy Thomas gave me the opportunity to follow that dream.

Marvel Comics needed someone to package weekly reprints which the company published for the British market. The qualifications for the job were minimal: a decent writing style, a decent sense of layout, and a good knowledge of the Marvel Universe. The last was a lot easier to achieve in 1972 than it would be today. After all, FANTASTIC FOUR #1 was only a dozen years old.

My copies of the British weeklies I worked on have either been lost to basement flooding or hidden by the gods of storage. But I came across an auction for THE MIGHTY WORLD OF MARVEL #38 [June 23, 1973] on eBay and, recognizing the cover as one I had conceived and written, I bid on and won the issue.

I had mixed feelings as I looked over the issue and tried to put myself back in the head of the young editor who put most of it together. I would've designed the cover...if one wishes to define "design" as telling penciller Rich Buckler I wanted a large panel of the Hulk and Abomination slugging it out with the disembodied head of the Stranger behind them and a smaller panel taken from a scene in the Fantastic Four story reprinted in the issue. I think Mike Esposito inked this one.

We had to bat out these covers quickly. One of the "special" challenges of doing these weekly books was that our partners in the U.K. were forever switching the titles to different printers and, whenever they did, our deadlines got moved up by a week or three. Buckler did a bunch of covers for me because he actually worked in the same office as me. My other office-mates were Sol Brodsky (my immediate supervisor) and George Roussos (hidden behind his wall of file cabinets).

I'd grab other artists - Dick Ayers comes to mind - when they wandered into the office to chat with Sol...and get them to layout three or four covers at a shot. I always felt I was up against the deadlines on these weeklies and, in truth, I always was. At one point, I was editing *three* different weeklies for the overseas market. Whatever happened to that youthful energy?

Getting back to the cover...

The top strip would have been added overseas, replacing one I had written. I soon learned not to put anything really important in that strip. The word balloons are typical overblown Marvel, but that was what was wanted by Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, and the folks in London-town.

I winced when - for maybe the first time in 30 years - I read the cover copy I wrote for the FF story. I could have done without the redundant "in battle" line. Yeah, it's a little thing, but it still bugs me.

The cover was likely colored by George Roussos. I'm certain it looked much better before it was sent to the ham-fisted overseas printers. Sad to say, the weeklies were produced on the cheap and we could never disguise that fact...

...though it wasn't for lack of trying.

Hulk page

THE MIGHTY WORLD OF MARVEL didn't have full color. It had a splash of color - singular - and as much zip-a-tone as our artists could put on the pages without breaking our budget. We had a bunch of zip artists working on these books, including future stars like Klaus Janson and Ed Hannigan.

I wasn't an artist, so Sol worked more closely with these zip artists than I did. He used to encourage them to use every bit of zip on the pages we supplied because, like I said, Marvel was doing these books on the cheap. Sol likewise supervised the laying down of the one color we would have on some pages. We split the task of keeping the artists on schedule, but, in those days, with rates low and volume the only way to survive, we rarely ran into any kind of deadline problems with them.

(Hopefully, the scans I'm including with this column will give you some idea of what the issues looked like. If they didn't come out well, blame me and not World Famous Comics web-wizard Justin. I'm still learning how to use a scanner.)

If you could view the indicia clearly, which I doubt you can, you'd see a credit line reading...

Edited by Peter L. Skingley.

I have no idea who he is/was. My best guess is he was one in a long succession of often annoying functionaries at the offices of Marvel's British partners. Being a cocky young Yank, I paid them as little heed as possible and with good reason.

Let me mention again that Marvel Comics did these weeklies on the cheap. The covers were new material and, in the early issues, we did some new game and puzzle pages. The letter columns were new material as well and, at various times, featured letters written by myself to beat those ever-present deadlines. We'll talk more about the letter columns in a bit. I just wanted to stress the "cheap" part one more time before continuing.

"Editing" these weeklies wasn't brain surgery. I would figure out which stories would be reprinted in each issue and order stats on them. The stats would be pasted up and I would proofread them for mistakes that hadn't been caught the first time around - or had been caught, but not on those particular stats - and also to change words to their British spellings. Lettering would sometimes close up on the stats, so I'd mark those for correction as well.

When it became a wee bit difficult to get Marvel's production department to handle all the above - the American comics were first priority and rightfully so - I got the okay to hire Tom Orzechowski to do the work on a freelance basis. He was a fan from Detroit who wanted to be a letterer. I got his foot in the door; his hard work and talent took him the rest of the way.

If any story was too long to run complete in an issue, as was the case with the book-length stories such as those from FANTASTIC FOUR, I would decide where we would break them and write new splash pages for the subsequent chapters.

More on that in a bit.

The Brits I dealt with - as little as humanly possible - did not seem to grasp that these stories were reprints...or that even our large supply of available stories was not infinite. When they decided the Hulk was our second-most popular character - Spider-Man had already graduated to his own British weekly - they wanted us to run nothing but Hulk stories in TMWOM.

We were up to Hulk stories which appeared in TALES TO ASTONISH at the time. Three Hulk stories per week would have eaten up that run in less than three months. Even when we got to the book-length Hulk stories, 30 pages a month would still have us burning through a year's worth of issues every eight weeks. I would have added a third feature to replace Spider-Man - my choices were the X-Men or Iron Man - but ended up settling for keeping the Fantastic Four in the title.

Iron Man would have been a huge problem for the Brits. They hated any stories featuring Communist villains and sometimes asked us to send replacements for them. I must have heard their whining phrase - "No reds under the bed." - dozens of times in our weekly phone calls. Through an incredible coincidence, that would be when we'd inexplicably lose the connection. Shucks.

Hulk Panel

To appease them, I would edit out any specific references to the Communists. I don't have the original American comic at hand, but the fairly obvious re-lettering in the last thought balloon of the above panel is an example of my doing that.

This is why the Red Ghost - first seen in FANTASTIC FOUR #13 - became the MAD Ghost in the British weeklies.

Eventually, out of frustration and a desire for some sort of Brit-based continuity, I created Moldavia, the most evil country on the face of the planet. It combined Russia and China into one huge landmass of nastiness. Their respective symbols - the red star and the hammer-and-sickle - were replaced on their planes and tanks by a lightning bolt.

The Brits would sometimes demand/request more stories in which Marvel super-heroes had adventures in England. Again, they weren't quite getting our core concepts of "cheap" and "reprints" in making such demands/requests. I once cruelly toyed with them by telling them that we did, indeed, have a Spider-Man in London story in our files...and that we wouldn't be getting around to it until we'd run the 70-odd stories that came before it.

I could be a right bloody snot in those days.

Glynis Oliver, who was then Glynis Wein, worked in Marvel's production department in those days. Born in England, Glynis was gracious in helping me overcome my lack of knowledge concerning the country for which I was packaging these weeklies. For example, I had never known "bloody" was considered fairly strong profanity in the U.K. Had it not been for Glynis, I would have used the word in one of the letters pages I wrote for the weeklies and almost surely had to swallow yet another glass of transatlantic whine.

Speaking of those letters pages...

The first thing I did on my first day at Marvel in 1972 was to write a letters page for TMWOM. Sol gave me a package of fan mail from England. Out of the fifty-plus letters, there were maybe six or seven that were usable. Clearly, our British readers were much younger than our American readers.

I never received what I would have considered enough useable letters from the U.K. In retrospect, I should have run more of the letters I did receive and aim the columns directly at those younger readers. Instead, I tried to "elevate" the columns to the level of our American comic books.

It eventually became easier to write the letters myself. I'd take a first name from this British reader, a last name from that one, and bug Glynis for the names of likely cities from which these letters could have been received.

Oh, the irony. Roy Thomas knew of me - first and foremost - from the many letters I sent to Marvel as a fan. Now I was getting paid to write fan letters.

There came a time when my duties expanded to the point where I could not continue writing the British letters columns and handed them off to the London office. This issue's edition of "The Mighty Marvel Mailbag" doesn't read like anything I would have written at the time. The use of words like "bookstalls" and the inexplicably- hyphenated "Bull-pen" confirm this conclusion.

Fantastic Four

Have I mentioned that THE MIGHTY WORLD OF MARVEL and the other British weeklies had very small budgets? Just checking.

Whenever we broke up an issue-length stories into chapters, I would have to design and write a new splash page for the remaining chapters. The one shown above was an easy one. Just a new logo, credits that were probably copied from another comic, a few panels taken from the previous issue, and one new caption.

These "new* splash pages were seldom this easy. There was no money for new art, so I would cobble together the new splash pages from cover art, assorted panels, and even figures lifted from the previous chapter(s). Once I had the layout for a page worked out, I'd come up with a chapter title, write some sort of "what has gone before" copy, and hand the whole mess off to production. It wasn't a lot of work, but it did become a problem on those weeks when, as a result of another switch in printers, we found ourselves having to complete two or three issues of each title.

Marvel House Ad

The only other thing I did in this issue was the top half of the above house ad. I would have written and roughed out the copy, then handed it off to a letterer. It might have been done in house by the production department - with my best guess being that it was lettered by Danny Crespi - or it might have been lettered by Joe Rosen, following in the footsteps of his brother Sam.

My memories of those years aren't always as clear as I would like, but I know Sol Brodsky would often deliver work to Joe on his way home from the office and pick it up the next morning on his way into the office. I also made such deliveries. Even at a time when dependability was darn near a given in comics, Joe was exceptional. We could always count on him.

The bottom half of the house ad was done by the British folks. I have no idea what it refers to. It might have been an old ad for F.O.O.M. - our Friends of Old Marvel fan club - dropped into place when a paid advertisement fell through or it might have been some sort of teaser for one of the competitions/promotions so prevalent in British comics. Like this one which appeared on the back cover of this issue:

Marvel Ad

I confess I never paid much attention to what the U.K. office did with any issue after we sent them our part of it. On this end, we were working many months ahead of publication and, the deadlines being as tight as they were, we rarely had the time to do more than glance through the printed copies when they arrived from across the ocean...though one of my more pleasant jobs was distributing copies to those who had worked on them.

As I said above, I had mixed feelings as I looked through this issue. I was excited about working at Marvel and I always did the best I could on every assignment given to me. Yet, when I see this finished result, I see the flaws first.

I wish the weekly budgets and the deadlines had allowed me to do a better job for our British readers. Their love for comics was as great as mine and, in recent years, I've learned how much these comics meant to the U.K. fans and future comics pros who read them each and every week. I'm glad I was a part of that. It wasn't at all a bad way to begin my comics career.

Thanks to Roy Thomas for giving me my break and teaching me so much in those early years...with equal thanks to Sol Brodsky, Stan Lee, and my other Bullpen mentors.

Thanks to the British readers for their enthusiasm and to all the readers I've hopefully entertained since.

Thanks to my family, my friends, and the legions of talented folks I've been privileged to work with.

And, as always, thanks to you for spending a part of your day with me. I'm taking a break for Thanksgiving and Mid-Ohio-Con, but I'll be back on December 1 with more stuff.

Tony Isabella

<< 11/24/2004 | 11/25/2004 | 12/01/2004 >>

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Zero Tonys
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.

ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.

TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?

THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.

FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?

FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.

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