Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Hooking the Reader, Only to Fizzle?

Doug: For my 49th birthday, which was 10 days ago, my in-laws got me a $20 Barnes and Noble gift card. I'm usually an Amazon kind of guy, because I feel their prices are better. But of course I took the plunge and snagged a used (although when it arrived it was as new as new can be) copy of Super-Villains Unite: The Complete Super-Villain Team-Up for $16. Thumbing through the book (which is thick -- I got a great deal) I was struck with how below-average the art was in the series. Lots of not-so-good Herb Trimpe, some really early Keith Giffen that is baaaaaad, etc. But the first appearance before the ongoing was actually in Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up #1. It featured two reprints, but the framing story was drawn by Big John Buscema. For the second G-S issue, DC guys Mike Sekowsky and Jack Abel turned in the pictures. While obviously a couple of notches below JB, it was serviceable. When the series finally began in 25c form the first issue featured George Tuska and the second Sal Buscema. So really, to get this ball rolling there was some pretty solid art. But as I said, it devolved quickly.

Doug: All this got me to thinking -- Marvel seemed to have a "hook" artist at the beginning of many of their 1970s start-ups. But did that last? Did the series (of course most of them barely made it past a second year of circulation) continue to deliver? Let's stick to the John Buscema theme for a minute. Below are the covers to three other series that Buscema was tapped to kick off: Ms. Marvel, Nova, and She-Hulk.

Doug: Obviously John Romita provided the cover for Ms. Marvel #1, and Rich Buckler and Joe Sinnott did the honors on Nova. Big John penciled the She-Hulk book. For the record, Buscema stuck around for three issues on Ms. Marvel, two on Nova (before giving way to his brother, Sal), and only penciled the inaugural issue of She-Hulk. I'm not going to denigrate the work of guys like Mike Vosburg, but let's be honest -- he isn't JB! And as I said above, each of these books petered out around the 25th issue.

Doug: So what else? Marvel had tried to get an Inhumans series going earlier in Amazing Adventures. It lasted around 10 issues before the second attempt was made a few years later. It should have succeeded -- during its short life, the book featured pencils by George Perez, Gil Kane, and Keith Pollard. Perez, young and green, handled five of the first eight issues. But Kane's style is such a stark contrast to that of Perez, was that a factor in perhaps driving readers away? Hard to say. Another book in which Kane was involved was the Champions. Maybe this book had other issues involving the writing and/or hero line-up, but covers by Kane, Ron Wilson, and Rich Buckler couldn't save the book from the interiors of Don Heck and George Tuska (in fairness, both past their prime). 

Doug: So speaking of interiors, one of the great mysteries of short-lived series in the Bronze Age is the survival of The Invaders. From the get-go Frank Robbins was on duty (often inked by Frank Springer) -- to say Robbins' art is not to my liking would be an understatement. I've read his scripting on the Batman books -- I absolutely have no problem at all with him as a writer. But I have a struggle each time I try to read books he penciled. To further confound the Invaders problem, the series enjoyed wonderful covers by John Romita (I'm featuring the second issue, as I'd shown the first issue's cover a few weeks ago) and then an extended run by Jack Kirby. Many have said that Kirby should have done the interiors as well. By the way, the fifth issue, penciled by Rich Buckler, was a treat.

Doug: What do the readers say? I guess we're talking about a subject that comes up then and again -- covers vs. interior art and also the major issue of short-lived series -- the often-revolving creator carousel. And what's your opinion on those first-issue artists? I was surprised at how many kick-offs John Buscema shepherded us through. Was he editorial's go-to guy? Was he the Bronze Age's Jack Kirby, in terms of "if we want this to be good and get off the ground, Big John has to do it"? Do you think these series had a focus, or were they merely to take up shelf space in order to cut into DC's market share? Thanks in advance for your thoughts.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, Doug - one of the things I noticed about that great Romita covers gallery you posted earlier this month was how many of them were first issues and/or appearances of characters, and in the mid 70s the A-list Marvels almost always seemed to have covers by Gil Kane.

Not sure theres any great mystery there - why wouldn't a publisher put their best, most reliable talent up front to hook in the punters? Particularly on first issues, when initial sales can make or break a new title. More puzzling to me is why there weren't more gimmicks - British comics in the 70s would pretty much always have a "free gift" with the first couple of issues. Generally this would be some dumb bit of sculpted plastic or something - your free Spiderman mask would turn out to be a sheet of red polythene with two eyeholes cut out - but, you know, when the audience is largely made up of nine year olds that could make a big difference to start up circulation figures....
(I suppose gimmicks finally became part of the US scene with the direct market - free foil embossed hologram poly-bagged trading cards and all that - proving, perhaps, that comic fans are basically more immature than the average child. I know I certainly am!:)

Anyway, we all learned the important lesson fairly quickly, right? - Always have at leaast a quick look INSIDE the comic before parting with your hard earned pennies!


J.A. Morris said...

Don't forget that Sinnott inked Big John on 'Ms. Marvel' and 'Nova'. Doesn't hurt to have another of Marvel's top talents embellishing the "hook" issues. I wish Buscema & Sinnott had launched the Champions, the series would've been a lot more fun and given the Greek Gods storyline the epic grandeur it deserved.

I also picked up that 'Super-Villain Team-Up' tpb. I plan to review it at my reprints blog, so I won't say too much in this space. But I wasn't crazy about the inconsistent art either.

Edo Bosnar said...

Yeah, I have the Super-villain Team-up Essentials volume, and I can say that the series was really more miss than hit. The art in the first few issues was decent, but none of the stories really stood out to me - I think that one that crossed over with Avengers was about the best. That and, surprisingly, the last two issues, which came out about a year apart, and - instead of the usual Dr. Doom/Namor team-up - featured Red Skull and Hate Monger.

I guess I sort of got hooked into She Hulk, as I had the first issue, but I never had any others. Basically, even though the art was nice, I didn't really like the story in the first issue that much, and when I saw Buscema wasn't doing the art in the later issues I just never bothered picking them up.
As to Sean's point about nice covers, I think we've discussed that here before, but one of the things a young comics reader learned early on was to flip through the book before buying it. Not even a da Vinciesque effort by, say, Romita or George Perez could get me to pick up a story drawn by some artist I didn't like (unless I was already following the series anyway).

By the way, Doug, interesting that you mention the Inhumans series from the mid-70s. I had the entire run, bought in about 1980 or '81, and I also wondered why it didn't take off. The stories were pretty solid, and you mentioned the rather top-notch artists working on it. I'm guessing some of it had to do with the fact that Perez and Pollard were just starting out at the time.

Dr. Oyola said...

This is something that still happens.

Marvel is frequently getting their best/most popular artist to do the first arc or so of a new title, but then switch to another artist soon after.

I think another reason why this happens is that some of the best artists are also the slowest working and thus fall behind. . . so they are great when they have lead up time, but once a series gets going either the publishing schedule goes off or they need a new artist.

Doug said...

Osvaldo --

You make me think of "try-outs" for new artists. The problem editorial had/has with new or young talent is where to put them? I think there are two places -- following an established and well-respected creator, or in a new vehicle about an established character. The first example that leapt to mind (and I don't know if he was "new" at the time) was Erik Larson following Todd McFarlane on Amazing Spider-Man. Let me say, I noticed. And I wasn't tickled about it.

Back to young George Perez. Edo brought up the Avengers/SVTU crossover. Is anyone else just blown away at how much Perez improved in a little over a year's time? Think about his Avengers debut in the Squadron Supreme/Kang storyline, and then just a few months later in the SVTU crossover. Wow! To be fair, much of my opinion has to do with the departure of Vinnie Colletta as his inker and the arrival of Pablo Marcos (whose faces I am generally not a fan of). Marcos' stronger lines really made Perez pop and it was wonderful.


Anonymous said...

All of these comics, with the exception of She-Hulk, were launched during my peak buying days. I know I have the 1st issues of all of those others and probably a dozen or more issues of each thereafter. Doug, I think your closing comment about market share pretty much sums up what was going on here. And the strategy seemed to be launch with our best foot forward and then have someone else take over. I was initially intrigued by all these titles but I don't think there was really any "vision" for how to develop all of these characters. And the marketing was often very telegraphed and shallow. Nova was the new young hero like Spiderman. You like teams? Let's throw these 5 heroes together and call them the Champions. I also remember thinking "Subby's a villain?"

Again, intriguing ideas all with some potential but never fully realized. So the end result for me was feeling like it was just more attempts to get me to cough up a few more quarters.


Anonymous said...

I am/was a huge fan of SVTU.
Yeah, it's probably because issue #7 was one of the first Marvel comics I had as a little kid (mom bought it) and I was pretty sick of Donald Duck by that point.
It was my first introduction to Doctor Doom, the Sub-mareener (that's how I read it) and Henry Kissinger.
I later acquired the whole run, and, while it's uneven, directionless, and cheesy as hell, I love it. It's just good ol' Bronze Age Marvel cheesiness, like the Champions, Werewolf by Night or Marvel Presents.
You just gotta put your brain in park and sit back and enjoy the weirdness.

Rip Jagger said...

Four sure Big John Buscema was seen as the go-to artist at Marvel, even after the return of Jack Kirby in the 70's. Much like what happened to Kirby years before, John's output was increased by having him do breakdowns on lots of things with the inkers picking up the slack, sometimes to great effect.

As for The Invaders, I've just begun reading those stories again and I was just thinking this morning as I read along how much I really enjoyed the work of Frank Robbins, so kinetic and antic. Everybody is moving all the time, sometimes I'd agree a bit too much. But I really like it - different strokes and all.

Rip Off :)

pfgavigan said...


Another problem for me at the time was the ever revolving "Wheel of Creators" that many of these books experienced. Roy Thomas has been frequently quoted as being the 'Idea Man' (which would make a great villain) and conceptualized many of the new books before handing them off to other writers, frequently Gerry Conway. That might last for an issue or two before someone else took over the writing duties.

I'm a firm believer that good books come from stable creative teams. These don't have to be permanent, may only last a couple of years, but in that time the idea of what the book is and is about becomes set and gives those creators who follow a better idea about what works for that particular book.

By the way, even the consistency of one person on a book can give it a sense of stability. I stuck with the Fantastic Four thru several different writers and artists as long as Joe Sinnott was there to provide the finished pages. Although, in the end, even that wasn't enough.


Martinex1 said...

Regarding tryout books, I always thought the series like Marvel Premiere, Marvel Presents, What If, etc would be ideal to cultivate new talent because the artists wouldn't have the ongoing stress and can work on unrelated runs simultaneously with other teams.

Pfgavigan has a great point about rotating talent and it's impact. Nothing was worse than having a creative team change midstream. Talent changing mid arc was often distracting. The worst was when there was a big buildup that just fizzled because creative teams changed. Say what you will about Byrne's run on West Coast Avengers, but not getting his completion of the Scarlet Witch story was a letdown.

I think much of the success of the XMen was because of a consistent team with a perennial writer. Like Claremont or not, he was allowed to build his world.

I like the Invaders, but was it the characters or the actual stories and art that kept that going? I would pick it up again and again, and I too grew to really like Robbins, but I think I mainly picked it up to see Cap's adventures in WWII. Also Union Jack and the original Torch were cool characters in my eyes. Is that why it lasted? As mentioned how can that possibly compare to the art in the Inhumans?

I agree that the whole approach to comic success is using the product as it's own marketing tool. The cover sells. I bought reprints because of the great covers.

Also I think some artists are better at covers. Ed Hannigan from my understanding designed a lot of classic covers, but is not necessarily recognized for the work. I think he often did layouts and they were penciled by others, but many times it is the layout that sells.

Also, back in the day even the lettering was specialized. The lettering on the splash page, particularly the issue's title was often handled by a specialist for the greatest impact.

Comicsfan said...

The other side of the coin in this well-raised topic is also food for thought: How was it tactfully explained to the artist "on base" that it was felt the quality of his work wasn't sufficient to launch the title he would take over at a certain point?

Anonymous said...

In the '80s, it was Bill Siemkiewicz or BWS cover/ Marvel house-style interiors. In the '90s, it was shiny/hologram/fold-out cover, Image-lite interiors. In the '00s, it was poster-style cover, decompressed interior. That's what we have now, plus unrelated variant covers. There must be something to the strategy as Marvel never abandoned it.

- Mike Loughlin

Karen said...

I liked the idea of the Invaders far better than the reality of the Invaders. But I bought the book anyway...

Anonymous said...

Hmm it seems back in the day it was a normal practice to let a go-to artist like Big John do the first few issues or covers, and then let another less established talent take over the art duties. Maybe this was Marvel's way of blooding young artists, trying to ease them into the series. Of course, this usually backfired.

As for the run of the Invaders, like Doug I'm not one of Frank Robbin's biggest fans either (sometimes when I saw his artwork I said 'heck I can draw better than this guy!') but I guess if your're 9 years old you don't think 'gee, why does Captain America look so funny?'. It's only in retrospect you realize Robbins's artistic flaws.

- Mike 'miss Big John' from Trinidad & Tobago.

BK said...

Some thoughts on this great topic:

-Big John was def the Bronze Age's Kirby, in terms of setting the tone for a new series, except when Kirby himself was playing that role. But part of Kirby's ideas upon his return I think was a reluctance to give up ideas to others. He was hired to create and give run with new series in the 70s. Unfortunately, most of them lasted less issues than uninspired, by-the-numbers efforts like Ms Marvel. Marvel knew Kirby was a master at doing covers the Marvel Way (he invented it) so must have made a certain amount of covers part of the new deal (or maybe it was just a way for Jack to get more money for the same amount of work, maximizing his time?).

-It seems like Marvel had a good system for shepherding new books into print. Romita would often do character design.
Buscema would layout first issues. Proven workhorses like Kirby, Kane, et al would do covers, often designed by Mary Severin and inked by other Silver Age heroes like Sinnott. This system often fell apart but mostly provided a line-wide consistency throughout the 70s.

-Even more than in the 60s heyday, Marvel was desperate to stay afloat in the 70s, and using what rare resources they had, in this case the few remaining tried-and-true older artists as the backbone of the company's production. I see Carmine Infantino's hire in the same light. His art struck me as wonky and un-Marvel as a maturing fan (although very much a key Bronze Age artist in retrospect) but he was an experienced deadline-hitting pro legendary for his design sense, costumes, and innovative storytelling, and it probably made sense to his editors to use him whenever possible. I wonder what the politics of hiring Infantino were? After being dumped by DC, Marvel was the only game in town if you wanted to make a living. But Carmine had been the big chief at DC. Now he was reduced to illustrating the scripts of young punks on things like Spider-Woman and Nova.

-I was a fan of The Invaders as a kid, in part because, for some reason, it was one of those books that I was able to get my hands on consistently. Maybe other kids traded it to me because of its offbeat qualities (i.e., it wasn't set in the "modern" Marvel Universe and had weird, even scary, art). Besides my nostalgia for the book, I actually have a genuine appreciation for Robbins' linework today; totally unique but part of a continuum from the great newspaper adventure cartoonists. Besides the art, though, it is a solid Marvel-style hero team book and featured three fascinating leads and a bunch of great supporting heroes and sidekicks in the grotesque, action-packed setting of WWII. Kind of a sausage-fest, but still a fun concept.

BK said...

-Many current and former Marvel fans, today and in the 70s, are concerned that the books they read "matter." The titles and stories have to carry forward the epic that is the universe Stan and Jack and Steve created. If a book looks like it is faltering or isn't really contributing to the mythos, it often gets short shrift. If it doesn't concern itself with the main adventures of the top 10 or so characters, forget it. You'll have to work extra hard to get our attention. And, if not revived or repurposed later, many "failed" concepts are ignored and consigned to also-ran, dustbin status, even by fans of the period who have moved on and only remember the "hits". Such a shame. So much gold in those old weird comics. The great thing about 70s Marvel was a willingness (need?) to experiment. The hardcore and even casual readership could afford to follow. Comics were cheap. And they didn't publish 100 a month. Only 20-30 titles. So Man-Thing and Defenders could have long runs. Omega, Eternals, Devil Dinosaur, etc could get a shot. Micronauts happened. Howard happened.

-Luckily, more than any company Marvel is good at mining their old junk. Let's face it, it's all they have now that no-one can or will create anything really "new" for them. In a way, this tactic has been part of the House of Ideas since the beginning: copy, steal, blunder, revive.

-Perhaps one reason for The Invaders' longevity, compared to its contemporaries, and despite its seeming handicaps, was Roy Thomas's involvement. Former EIC and golden boy, HouseRoy was also the guy responsible for some of the few hits of the 70s, including licensed properties Conan and Star Wars, as well as being, as mentioned above, a consistent "idea man." Maybe letting Roy have a pet project or two was a reward for all the other stuff. And he knew how to write in the bombastic Stan Lee/Marvel style more than most.

-Let's not forget, weird art, goofiness, and ill-advised period-specific concepts are some of the hallmarks of the Bronze Age that make it stand out as its own era. There are quite a few artists and titles from 70s Marvel that hold up as distinct, historically unique works of art.

whew. talk about jumbled late-night ramblings!

JJ said...

I've nothing to add except to say I really enjoyed this topic, Doug, and your late-night ramblings, BK. In a way BAB is a history course, and nearly every entry provides a new kernel of knowledge.

Also wanted to mention how much I appreciate the BAB Twitter feed. Every day I get several new panels of art from my favorite period of comics. It can be a real mood-lifter. I'm really happy you guys make the extra effort to keep it fresh.


William said...

Nothing is more disappointing than when Carmine Infantino takes over the art chores on a comic that you like. (Except maybe when Frank Robbins does). Infantino ruined Nova and Ms. Marvel for me, and Robbins ruined Captain America, and the lesser known Human Fly.

Ironically, the Champions had the opposite thing happen when John Byrne took over as artist late in the series' run. However, even the mighty Mr. Byrne couldn't save that title from cancelation.

Doug said...

Ozone --

Thanks! Putting some of our previous panel grabs up on Twitter is a public service I try to provide when time allows. Glad you have noticed and are enjoying those!


JJ said...

I check for them daily, Doug! Always a fun surprise to see what pops up. -JJ

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