Saturday, August 30, 2008

Lost In Licensing 2: A Groovy Guest Post by Barry Pearl

Lost and Found…in Licensing: The Adventure Continues:

In 1895 H.G. Wells wrote “The Time Machine” and 55 years later it is the subject of a Classic Illustrated comic. That could never happen again. Once there was a 35 year limit for how long a book could retain its exclusive copyright then. Now, called the “Mickey Mouse Law” so Mickey could not become public domain, it has been extended for over 100 years.

So 70 years after Conan was introduced, he is still not out of copyright. Marvel could not just have waited and republished him. I have learned, from my friend Markus Mueller (of the Unofficial Marvel Handbook of Marvel Creator’s Website) that there was an Essential Conan the Barbarian, published in 2000. I have also learned that we probably will not see Rom, Spaceknight and the Micronauts again. But let us first see something that we can see, but could have lost:

1970’s Science Fiction in Comics: Going, Going, Gone
June 1938: Jor-El puts his son in a rocket and aims it towards Earth. He gets here with no GPS, no food, no water or diaper changes, but every since then, science fiction, or science fantasy, have been part of comic books. Before Superman, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon filled the Sunday color sections with their exploits in space.

Comics were the stepchild of the pulp business. The same printers owned the presses. They used the same type of materials: glossy covers and newsprint insides. They also had writers and artists. Many comic book publishers, including Martin Goodman, started out publishing pulps and continued into comics. Whatever genre was popular in the pulps, crime, mysteries, westerns sci fi, and adventure stories were brought to the comics. Marvel Science Stories (later re-named Marvel Tales) was Goodman’s first major publication; the pulp would give the company its eventual name. It was a pulp that featured adventure and science fiction stories published around 1940.

Starting in 1950, DC published Strange Adventures; (244 issues from 1950 through 1973) which was joined a year later with Mystery in Space (1951 to 1966). The DC line was always a bit tame compared to EC. Although it was aimed at a younger market, it often included such top artists as Frank Frazetta and Joe Kubert. Science fiction stories also made their way into the adventure comics edited by Jack Schiff, including HOUSE of Mystery; My Greatest Adventure and Tales of the Unexpected. Schiff was not nearly as respected as Schwartz. Martin Goodman could always spot a trend and introduced Journey into Unknown Worlds (1951-1957); Space Squadron; (1951-52) and other comics like Mystic, which used “science fiction” themes. The memorable sci-fi era was developing across town.

William Gaines at EC produced the most famous crime, science fiction and, of course, horror comics that were dominating the industry at the time. Gaines said that DC, Marvel and many other comic book companies were not offering true Science Fiction stories. They were, in his words, presenting “cowboys and Indians” in space. He was right. Using the background of sci-fi, Marvel, then known as Atlas, had adventures strips in outer space, underground and in different dimensions. It was most often good guys versus bad guys. In EC’s Weird Science and Weird Fantasy there was very little of that. They even adapted from Ray Bradbury. The art at EC was by Frank Frazetta, Harvey Kurtzman, Joe Orlando, Wally Wood, and Graham Ingles who became leaders in their field. However, it was Horror Comics that were taking over and slowly. At both Marvel and EC, horror was infiltrating their science fiction stories.

DC converted Mystery in Space and Strange Adventures to super-hero/outer space adventure titles, featuring such characters as Adam Strange and Hawkman. It was at this time, with Julius Schwartz as editor at DC, that many of his characters all began to have a science fiction background.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970’s, pure science fiction faded away in both the comics and in the pulps. So popular a decade or two earlier, the pulps had begun to disappear totally. DC did not completely abandon the science fiction genre, producing “Strange Sports Stories” (Brave and the Bold #45-49, 1962-3). I personally asked Carmine Infantino why these stories faded away so quickly and he said, “Didn’t Sell.” Two words that summed up sci-fi in the 1970s.

As EC had done, Marvel presented stories by established Sci Fi writers, and published a few of my favorite comics ever. Unfortunately, we may never see any of these again because of licensing and copyright.

In 1973, Marvel began publishing Worlds Unknown, a purely sci fi book. It contained adaptations of great pieces of science fiction and kept them great. One of my favorites was the first issue containing a great story with a social message, “The Day after the Martians Landed” and a beautiful heart tugging story, “He Who Hath Wings.” Authors included Frederick Pohl and L. Sprague DeCamp. As with so many ideas then, Marvel did not stay with it long. Eventually the comic simply adapted stories from the then-popular Sinbad movies. It lasted eight issues. A similar approach was tried, a short time later, in a black and white magazine called Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction. It didn’t last long either. Marvel would return to the Sci-fi genre, but mostly with movie adaptations such as Planet of the Apes, 2001 and Logan’s Run. All had limited runs. War of the Worlds (out of copyright) adapted from the book was converted into an adventure series featuring Killraven and lasted 21 issues (AMAZING ADVENTURES #18-39).

Genres do mix. In the 1950’s, with horror doing so well, EC mixed Sci Fi with horror and even crime. In the 1970’s, with Conan doing so well, Marvel decided to mix it’s licensed and unlicensed super-heroes with the Sword and Sorcery genre. We have also “lost” Thongor, (Creatures on the Loose: #22-29) and Gullivar Jones (Creatures on the Loose: #16-21, Monsters Unleashed #4 and 8) took up swords on other planets. Even the Man-Wolf, a Marvel product, took up a sword (Creatures on the Loose: #30-37, Marvel Premiere #45-46).

Sadly, other items seemed lost and not just due to licensing. Let me just add that Marvel had the Watcher (In Tales of Suspense) and the Wasp (Tales to Astonish) tell some great stories in the early 1960s. During the Groovy Age the Watcher was brought back, in Silver Surfer comics, to retell some of those stories. However, these stories are mostly lost also. When Marvel Reprints the Masterworks and Omnibuses (Omnibi?) they do not include these wonderful tales. Gene Colan’s work on the Watcher stories was just beautiful.

Chris Claremont and Herb Trimpe were teamed to create a super-hero, Captain Britain, to be published in England, in hopes of duplicating the success Marvel was having in the colonies. The hero was to be bundled with reprints of the Fantastic Four, Captain America and several others. To my knowledge, those stories are not exclusively owned by Marvel, but licensed to the Panini Publishing company of Great Britain. While the character has been seen here, the original stories have not.

Marvel also did work for other companies. When Ideal was creating EvEl Knievel toys, they hired Marvel to create a comic book making him a hero. The Art was Mike Sekowsky, most famous in that era for the JLA. Herb Trimpe did a Big Little Book that featured the Fantastic Four.

I thought the Hostess ads were great and very much fun. Since they are a licensed property we may not see them again. Markus informs me that a villain from these stories has been integrated into the Marvel Universe.

Who can forget the Spidey Super Stories done for the Children’s Television Workshop, creators of Sesame Street and the Electric Company?

James Bond was also presented in DC’s Showcase comics, something that has never been reprinted.

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As for the rest of ya, the purpose of this blog is to (re)introduce you to the great comics of the 1970s. If you like what you see, do what I do--go to a comics shop, bookstore, e-Bay or whatever and BUY YOUR OWN!