TFMSR 003: Avengers #93 …

Avengers #93, November 1971. Cover by Neal Adams and Tom Palmer. TM & © MARVEL.

Click on the images in this post to see them larger on your screen!

Avengers #93, cover dated November 1971, but on sale in August of that year, is special for a number of reasons. First off, it’s the first Avengers issue drawn by Neal Adams and inked by Tom Palmer (written by Roy Thomas, who by this point in time had made the title his own). Secondly, it came out in the month that revealed a new cover format for Marvel Comics, with the image in a picture frame below each book’s logo type and with a solid color background surrounding it; text reading “MARVEL COMICS GROUP” ran in a banner across the top of each book, moving from its usual spot on the familiar corner boxes on all covers, which also all buy disappeared in this change. And thirdly and most importantly, Avengers #93 cost 25 cents in a month where most Marvel releases increased a dime in price from 15 cents. And therein lies our tale …

In 1971, under President Richard M. Nixon, inflation was increasing at a rapid rate in the United States, up 5.4% (by comparison, It had been up about 1% per year in the 1960s). Everything cost more. When the printer that printed both DC and Marvel’s comic books told the companies the cost of paper and printing would be going up, the companies decided—separately or together, no one quite knows—to raise their price from 15 cents, where it had been for DC, Marvel, and Archie since 1969, just two years earlier. But this time instead of the usual two or three cent increases of the 1960s (from 10 to 12 to 15 cents), DC jacked up the price to 25 cents per book, starting with their August 1971 cover-dated books, which were probably on sale in June (DC had a two-month lead-time on cover dates, Marvel three months). Their books were 48 interior pages but they also added in the covers to proclaim them as “52 BIG pages DON’T TAKE LESS 25¢”. DC offered one new story plus reprints in each book; the company’s extensive back library of stories available on film made reprints dating back to the 1940s easy.

Marvel tentatively dipped their big toe in the pool in July 1971 (with books cover-dated October) with six books: Astonishing Tales #8, Conan the Barbarian #10, Marvel Feature #1 (featuring the debut of the Defenders—Sub-Mariner, Hulk, and Dr. Strange as Marvel’s newest super-team), Monsters on the Prowl #13, Rawhide Kid #92, and Sgt. Fury #92. The Bullpen Bulletins page that month announced, “… This is the month that several of our much-lauded mags are going double-size to a full, fabulous 52 pages—for a mere 25¢. Yes, you heard right—for a mere extra dime, you’ll now be getting twice as much action—double the excitement … As for what the future holds in store for the rest of our magniloquent mags—well, keep lookin’ forward, pilgrim, ‘cause that’s where the future’s coming from!”

A few of the first group of Marvel comics that shifted to 25 cents with the October 1971 issues. TM & © MARVEL.

The future was a lot more immediate than Marvel let on. The next month, almost all their books jumped to 48 pages (52 with covers) and featured an all-new 34-page story; no added reprint story like DC was offering. It’s impossible to figure out how they did this. Marvel in this time period had a lot of problems with deadlines and resorted to filler issues and even the occasional reprint to make sure books came out on their normal monthly schedule. I can’t imagine how Avengers #93, which many people regard as the real beginning of the classic “Kree-Skrull War” storyline by Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, and John Buscema, was suddenly super-sized up from the usual 20-page story to 34. Was it just publisher Martin Goodman telling Stan Lee (or whomever was in charge at the moment with Stan on sabbatical, which was also announced in that same Bullpen Bulletins page), “The books are increasing to 48 pages … do longer stories!”

There was, of course, an official announcement from Marvel that month, both on the letter pages of each issue and in the Bullpen Bulletins page. That “ITEM!”—and an additional one—reveal a bit more about their plans, and make it sound like they were pretty much concrete at that point. One of the more interesting things is that Daredevil and Iron Man were going to combine into a split book that very next month, which is one way of solving the 34-page story conundrum. Here’s the original blurbs, pasted up into one graphic for space saving …

But just as quickly as the price and format change began, it ended, at least at Marvel. In fact, not all Marvel Comics cover-dated November 1971 ended up being 25 cents. A few of them were 20 cents, sporting a price in a colorful circle, looking like it was a separate sticker pasted over top of the old price (it wasn’t), including Amazing Adventures #9, Creatures on the Loose #14, and Sgt. Fury #93. Three of the western comics (Kid Colt, Outlaw, Rawhide Kid, and Ringo Kid) were 25 cents, but Two-Gun Kid was 20 cents. And one was still 15 cents: Marvel Spotlight #1, a new try-out title featuring Red Wolf, the Native American hero first introduced in the Avengers. This may have all been because of where they came in the production schedule. Here’s a complete cover gallery of Marvel superhero comics cover-dated November 1971 (Avengers #93 is pictured above) that were 25 cents, all sporting that new cover format. (As always, click on the images to see them larger on your screen.)

Some comics historians peg this as the moment that Marvel overtook DC in sales and stayed that way, save for a few stray issues, for … well, forevermore. Some credit publisher Martin Goodman as having this Machiavellian plan to do an end-run around DC and just raise the price to 25 cents for one month only, then immediately revert to 20 cents to undercut their rival. One thing Goodman did do: He kept the additional percentage that retailers got when the book went to 25 cents when the price went back down to 20 cents. It was a smart move, but I’m not convinced that Goodman was that savvy a businessman to come up with such a plan. Goodman was an imitator, not an innovator; He accidentally backed into having a game-changing new superhero line of comics that was entirely different than any of his competitors, but that’s due to Lee, Kirby, Ditko, et al. There aren’t a lot of quotes that exist from Goodman; he’s a bit of a mystery man, kind of unexplored in the comics history department, but one thing he did say was, “If you get a title that catches on, then add a few more, you’re in for a nice profit.” (I guess that explains his Western titles: Rawhide Kid, Two-Gun Kid, Ringo Kid, Outlaw Kid, and the imaginatively titled Kid Colt, Outlaw.) I think maybe the burden of not having the deep backlog of reprint material that DC had made Marvel realize they couldn’t do 34-page stories every month for too long. And evidently more than one month was too long.

House ad from November 1971 Marvel comics that heralded the price change. TM & © MARVEL.

Some people think Marvel and DC colluded on the price increase; or maybe the printer responsible for printing the books of both companies made the DC price increase known to Marvel. It couldn’t have been the distributor, since in 1969, Marvel had split from Independent News (owned by DC and the company who dictated some pretty serious restrictions on how many books Marvel could publish each month during the first decade of the Marvel Universe), and signed on with Curtis Circulation, a magazine distributor, who didn’t restrict their monthly output. But the nature of the comic book industry was an insular one, and DC and Marvel were both headquartered in New York City. Freelancers talk; writers and artists from both companies were friends. Cover proofs for upcoming issues were tacked up on editors’ walls in their offices. Somehow the word got out about DC’s new price hike.

In the coming months, that new distribution deal, along with a relaxing of the Comics Code Authority when it came to monsters and supernatural books, gave Marvel almost free rein to publish more books. Tomb of Dracula, The Monster of Frankenstein, Werewolf by Night, Morbius the Living Vampire (eventually soloing in Adventures into Fear after starting as a Spider-Man villain), and Man-Thing, plus a deluge of new and reprint titles, all meant more marketshare for Marvel. This is how and when I think Marvel solidified their lead; while in the short term, the price change allowed Marvel to overtake DC in sales because the cheaper books were more popular with both the distributors and the buying public (five Marvel comics per dollar compared to four for DC), I think all those other factors kept Marvel on top after DC finally went to 20 cent comics a few months after Marvel did.

A two-page spread by Neal Adams and Tom Palmer, just a sample of the amazing art in Avengers #93. TM & © MARVEL.

I recently became fascinated with this turn of events by listening to a “Marvel by the Month” podcast (episode #162, from July 13, 2022) with Marvel Senior Editor Tom Brevoort, who is also a fount of knowledge when it comes to comics history (to check out his blog, The Tom Brevoort Experience, click here). I’m always looking for a new thing to collect, especially a finite group of books that have something in common, and ten Marvel superhero books from August 1971 that introduced a new price, a new cover format, and contained a 34-page story sounded like an ideal mini-collection for me to pursue. So far I only have a few of them, but I’m kind of amazed at the quality of some of these books, especially the Neal Adams and Tom Palmer illustrated Avengers #93, the Thor/Silver Surfer story by Gerry Conway with great art by the Buscema brothers, John and Sal, in Thor #193, and an absolutely amazing tour-de-force by John Romita on Captain America #143, featuring both pencils AND inks by the famed Spider-Man artist. How he pulled off soloing on a 34-page story when he was known as a “slow” artist, is beyond me.

Three classic Gil Kane covers utilizing the “picture frame” format that started in 1971. TM & © MARVEL.

That new cover format that also saw its debut in this momentous Marvel month was, according to Roy Thomas, the idea of Stan Lee, who wanted a more consistent look to the covers. (DC tried this in the mid 1960s with their infamous “Go-Go Checks” across the top of each of their book; as someone mentioned it just pointed out which books NOT to buy.) Thomas was not a fan of Marvel’s new format, but did admit it made placing cover copy a bit easier. Gil Kane became Marvel’s go-to cover artist around this time, and he utilized the “picture frame” format to its best, often breaking the box and giving some of the covers an almost 3D look. I think I would have liked it better if the frame was centered in the cover and didn’t just bleed off the right side; maybe if it had equal space on either side of the box, or bled off both sides it would be more appealing. As such, it didn’t last for long; it was pretty much gone after 15 months or so.

So, a cool little collectible month of Marvel Comics is once again my obsession (see TFMSR 001, for my recap of my quest for all the December 1965 cover-dated Marvels to accompany my favorite Fantastic Four cover, #45) . Some of them are a bit pricey (like Amazing Spider-Man #102, the second appearance of Morbius, the Living Vampire), but there’s only ten of the superhero books, including Conan #11. I’m not counting the October cover-dated Conan or Astonishing Tales, since they don’t have the new cover format. And that, my friends, is a glimpse into how the collector’s mind works. Messy, isn’t it?

Added: 1/24/2023
Since originally posting this, I’ve gotten two more of these 25-cent issues, cover-dated November 1971, Fantastic Four #116 and Conan #11. The FF issue—by Archie Goodwin (I think the first non-Stan Lee written or plotted issue ever), with art by John Buscema and Joe Sinnott is another great comic, up there with Thor #193 and Captain America #143. I have no idea how Buscema did TWO 34-page stories in one month, but there’s absolutely no loss in the quality of his art and both these books prove he is the true heir to Jack Kirby at Marvel. Conan #11 is (pre-Savage Sword of Conan days) “the longest, greatest Conan epic ever!” (as the cover breathlessly proclaims) and is 34 pages of pure Barry Smith (inked by Sal Buscema, who also inked Thor #193, another Buscema boy with 68 pages under his belt for a single month), while he’s still solidly in that transition phase from awkward cartoonist in Conan #1 to accomplished artist in his final issue, #24. I almost wish Marvel would reprint all these 34-page stories in one book; even though I know there’s a few dogs in this bunch, it’s certainly a special time-in-a-bottle moment, and it surprises me that so many of these books are so great, at least art-wise, when everyone involved must have been severely under the gun, deadline-wise.

Next time: Steve Ditko revamps Charlton’s first superhero in Captain Atom #84, and for a hot minute, the third-rate company has a brief, shining moment.

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