Thursday, August 04, 2005

Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed #10!

This is the tenth in a series of examinations of comic book urban legends and whether they are true or false. The first one can be found here, the second can be found here, the third can be found here, the fourth can be found here, the fifth can be found here, the sixth can be found here the seventh can be found here, the eighth can be found here, and the ninth can be found here

Let's begin!

COMIC URBAN LEGEND: DC dictated the format of Marvel comics for more than a decade.

STATUS: True

In the late 1950s, publisher Martin Goodman was expanding Atlas/Marvel's place in the marketplace. However, they ran into a MAJOR problem in 1957.

They had signed a distribution agreement with American News Company.

However, due to some problems of their own, ANC ceased to distribute comics in Fall 1957!

Suddenly, Marvel was facing a MAJOR problem! They couldn't publish any comics!

This was, suffice to say, a major blow.

Desperate to get the books back on to the market before too much valuable time had passed, Marvel signed a deal with Independent News, with was a part of the same company as DC Comics!!

Yes, that is right, Marvel was being distributed by the enemy!

Part of the onerous deal was that Marvel could not publish more than eight monthly comics a month.

This became a major problem when they decided to get into superheroes in the early 60s, as they had to slowly phase out their other titles and convert those titles into superhero titles.

Not an easy feat to achieve, certainly.

In addition, this was why Marvel had so many anthologies. They WANTED to have more titles, but they were not ALLOWED to!

The original deal was modified over the years to allow for more titles, and finally, in 1968, Marvel was a big enough sales success (and DC was in a major sales slump) that they were able to negotiate their way out of the deal entirely, allowing themselves to sign with Curtis Distribution.

You may have noticed that 1968 saw the end of Tales of Suspense and Tales of Astonish.

That was because finally, Marvel was free to make title decisions fully on their own!

COMIC URBAN LEGEND: Thunderstrike was outselling Thor and Avengers combined when it was cancelled.

STATUS: As far as I can tell, False

Courtesy of the always fun to read, Life of Reilly (chronicling the Clone Saga in excrutiating detail), Tom DeFalco says,
Since I had access to the actual sales during that period, I can attest to the fact that at the time it was canceled THUNDERSTRIKE was actually selling more copies than both THOR and AVENGERS combined. Why were profitable titles like THUNDERSTRIKE, WAR MACHINE and all the 2099 books cancelled? The answer I was given was that the guy in charge of marketing had decided that these additional titles were hurting the core company franchises. He believed that the sales on THOR would go up as soon as THUNDERSTRIKE was cancelled, and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN would increase with SPIDER-MAN 2099 gone. Nice theory...but I still think it was nonsense.
And this is not a one-time deal, as I have seen DeFalco make this same claim in more than one interview.

Now, is it true?

On the one hand, I totally believe DeFalco in that sales very well may not have been the reason why Thunderstrike was cancelled.

Quite often, titles are cancelled when they ARE still profitable for the company, for all sorts of various reasons (in fact, one non-sales driven cancellation in particular is going to be fodder for a future bit).

So I believe DeFalco there.

But the reader's initial response when seeing a statement like that, ("How could Thunderstrike outsell both Avengers and Thor COMBINED?") is, as far as I can tell, accurate.

Now I, of course, cannot say what the official sales were. I am sure DeFalco, as Editor in Chief, was privy to many sales figures I could never see, but I COULD see the figures released by the distribution companies.

According to the sales figures of THEM, in January 1995, months before the cancellation of Thunderstrike was announced, Avengers was ranked a disappointing 74th overall.

Thor? An even worse 96th.

Thunderstrike? 144.

A few months later, Avengers was #70, Thor #98 and Thunderstrike #139.

So I just cannot see how Thunderstrike possibly, even presuming these rankings aren't TOTALLY accurate, how could a book ranked 144 outsell two books, ranked 74 and 96?!

So I am going to have to say that I think that Mr. DeFalco's claims are mistaken.

COMIC URBAN LEGEND: Charlton printed its comics using a cereal box press.

STATUS: True

Charlton Comics was the home of such famous heroes as Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, Nightshade and The Question (otherwords, the cast of Watchmen!).

It was also quite a unique operation, basically in how it managed to avoid spending much money on comics.

First of all, it did not pay its creators a great deal. They were generally on the low end of pay rates (but in return, their creators generally had a lot more freedom. Ditko, in particular, cited this reason as why he preferred working for Charlton over Marvel, despite being paid less).

In addition, rather than being in New York City like most publishers, they were headquartered in Derby, Connecticut.

Finally, they printed their own comics on site, and yes, the press that they used was first used to cut cereal boxes!!!

This very box press, which was used when the company formed in 1931, was used right until the company folded for good in 1986.

If you have any Charlton Comics from the late 70s or early 80s, take a look at them - the system did not hold up particularly well!!

Well, that's it for me this week!

Feel free to tell me some urban legends you have heard, and I will try to confirm or deny them!

Read More

22 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Part of the onerous deal was that Marvel could not publish more than eight comics a month."

I've seen this statistic before but I question its accuracy. By the spring of '65, Marvel had 8 monthly titles:

Fantastic Four
Amazing Spider-Man
Avengers
Sgt. Fury
Journey into Mystery
Strange Tales
Tales of Suspense
Tales to Astonish

*and* at least nine bi-monthly titles:

X-Men
Daredevil
Kid Colt
Rawhide Kid
Two-Gun Kid
Patsy Walker
Patsy and Hedy
Millie the Model
Modeling with Millie

By fall of the same year, the first two had also gone monthly and P&H was cancelled. Even if we count the bi-monthlies as 1/2 a title, that makes an average of a dozen Marvel books a month.

So while it is true that DC distributed Marvel's output until '68, the "8 books per month" limitation seems to be apocryphal (at least as of autumn '65.

Kurt (Cei-U!) Mitchell

8/04/2005 05:24:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

Thanks for the clarification, Kurt!

8/04/2005 05:32:00 PM  
Blogger MarkAndrew said...

I do believe that the Reprint Book Marvel Tales debuted pre-1965 as well.

So if the eight books a month cap isn't true, I wonder WHY the split books like Tales of Suspense, kept going for so long.

8/05/2005 12:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Jim Kosmicki said...

I believe that Charlton was its own distributor, and had a few solid selling song lyrics and hot rod magazines. They mainly needed the comic books to fill the product line.

there's some good evidence that many of the distributors, Charlton included, were money laundering fronts for "gentlemen of dubious character." obviously this is something that can't quite be proven, but the eyewitness evidence and anecdotes are pretty consistent.

8/05/2005 01:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Jim Kosmicki said...

Marvel did have a limit on their production. that's been confirmed over the years by too many people who were there. And the limit was most likely on the number of monthly books. there were very few monthly books back then. even very popular DC books were only published 8 or 9 times a year, rather than monthly.

You have to remember that Goodman had a long history of flooding the market. Independent News (not DC themselves but a sister company) had to know this and most likely did everything they could to control Goodman's natural tendencies.

and it's a good thing they did, too -- look at what he did with Atlas once he was in complete control of a company again.

Yet another interesting tidbit is that Curtis was best known for being the publishing house of the Saturday Evening Post, which was then on its last legs as a great weekly magazine. So their deal with Marvel was most likely an attempt to get someone in there who WOULD fill the pipeline with product.

8/05/2005 01:14:00 AM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

Thanks, Jim.

I agree, the whole "limit" thing has been said by far too many different people (including, as you said, people involved) for it to be false.

So I am now sticking with 8 monthlies!

8/05/2005 01:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stick with it at your own risk, BC. The fact remains that as of Autumn '65, Marvel was publishing 10 monthly titles and at least eight bi-monthlies (plus annuals) so either Goodman and ID renogiated terms sometime in '65 allowing them to add a couple of monthlies (which I strongly suspect to be the case) or the 8 monthlies limit is indeed apocryphal.

Kurt

8/06/2005 02:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Sir Tim Drake said...

Charlton had to keep its presses running all the time, because it was cheaper to keep them turned on than to turn them off and on again. The presses were only turned off twice a year so that they could be cleaned. This was one reason why they put out such a huge amount of product.

8/06/2005 01:56:00 PM  
Blogger mob said...

This was too much of a fun to read first one here second one here... :) Now if that is not creative use for links, then nothing is.

8/06/2005 05:16:00 PM  
Blogger Frank1234567 said...

LOOOOVE the comic-book urban-myth columns! Linked to them from Mark Evanier's wonderful blog.

One quick point I have to make, being a writer/editor -- there's no such phrase as "very unique." Something is either unique (one-of-a-kind) or not. Lots of people make this error. And don't me started on "it's"/"its" or "bussing" (kissing) vs. "busing."

8/12/2005 11:36:00 AM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

Corrected, Frank!

8/12/2005 07:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay there are a few small mistakes here.

In 1957 American News didn't disappear. They sold a bunch of prime land and were no longer able to distribute comics nationally. Anybody with them would only see their comics/magazines in parts of the country. Publishers needed/wanted their books everywhere so they jumped ship.

Another thing leading to the jump was ANC strong arm tactics. They also owned about 400 major retail spots around the country (through a subsidary called Union News) and would refuse to distribute magazines to those places unless they signed an exclusive agreement with American News.

The US gov't stepped in charged them under anti-trust laws. After 5 years of court battles AMC settled out and agreed to distribute everybody to Union News regardless of any exclusive agreements. Many publishers may have jumped ship simply because they didn't like being strong armed.

Independend News was not a subsidiary of DC Comics. Owned (in part) by the same people yes, but they didn't take orders from DC. Typically it was DC taking orders from them (ie, kill this title).

Oh and Charlton was started by two ex-cons that met while in prison. 1st guy was in for copyright infringment for publishing a magazine with famous song lyrics without getting permision from the song owners. The 2nd guy was a lawyer in for fraud.

They made a handshake deal that when they got out, they'd go into the publishing business but do it legit.

There has been rumors of Charlton firebombing their competitors distribution trucks, but I don't believe anything has been confirmed. Nobody that I know of ever went on record admiting such things actually happened.

- Jamie Coville

8/13/2005 10:11:00 PM  
Anonymous sean said...

"So I just cannot see how Thunderstrike possibly, even presuming these rankings aren't TOTALLY accurate, how could a book ranked 144 outsell two books, ranked 74 and 96?!"

Theoretically, if the ranking was by store-orders, the stores could've ordered just enough issues of 'Thunderstrike' to sell to people who'd buy it, but be over-ordering 'Avengers' and 'Thor'. I definitely remember a lot of months where I had to go to several stores to get 'Thunderstrike', while 'Thor' got old and mildewy.

However, I *still* doubt it was outselling anything. Stores would've ordered more within a few months if it were selling *that* well.

5/16/2006 10:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure about the ex-con story concerning Carlton Comics. Being an attorney, I can state with confidence that a person only does prison time for committing a criminal act. Copyright infringement is not a crime but cause for a civil action. As such, the copyright holder can sue the infringer in civil court for money damages but an infringer would not do jail/prison time for that act.

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