Wednesday, 4 November 2020

ROUND YOUR WAY (back in 1975, anyway)!

In the year following first contact with Ray Wergan in 2011,
I made a series of discoveries that changed the course of the book in a major way, inspired by what I was now learning from British Marvel’s first overseer. I forget what I was researching one winter afternoon, but I stumbled across an exciting catalogue listing from an American museum. This formed part of a much larger holding at the American Heritage Centre (AHC) based on the campus of Wyoming University, who had been gifted the Stan Lee Archive.

The archive comprises material from several different deposits made by Lee in the years preceding his demise, and so you can imagine my excitement when I stumbled across that master list of its contents – notated as a series of storage boxes containing various materials. There were three that caught my attention, although I’d spot a fourth one on a later occasion (a short audio recording for a UK radio commercial): British Correspondence 1973/4; Transworld correspondence; and in one of the audio/visual boxes videotapes of his appearance at The Roundhouse 1975.

The first teaser advert for The Roundhouse event

I know, videotape! Of the show at The Roundhouse! I was stunned by the prospect that it might be viewable.

Of course, I got in touch with the AHC immediately, although I remained doubtful that I’d be able to access anything given that I wasn’t resident in the US. I couldn’t have been more wrong! The team were wonderfully helpful from the outset, and arming their researches with a list of key words, I soon received a packed PDF of all that correspondence at a very fair cost  well worth it for the time taken to locate and scan all the pages. This stash of paperwork revealed a wealth of behind the scenes details via memos, letters, print contracts and sales reports. It also created more material to ask Wergan questions about too, naturally, starting up a continuing dialogue.

If you’ve been following TwoMorrow’s recent output, then you’ll have seen such books as Stan Lee Universe that have dipped into the Wyoming holdings. However, I think it’s fair to say that although the archives are open to one and all, the significance of that Roundhouse box will have been lost on most people in the US. Inside that storage box were two black-and-white video reels – an early professional format – which former Marvel London studio man Alan Murray informed me had been recorded by the young, comic-loving fans working for London’s first cable company. This documents Stan’s first major interaction with British comic fans on the evening of 20th October 1975.

There was one teensy-weensy, small snag, however. Whoever first requested such material had to pay the digital transfer costs. Not cheap for such a specialist job.

One of the two video reel boxes housing a visual treasure trove...

It was only this year that I was finally able to make the necessary arrangements to have the footage transferred by an archival specialist with the machine in the US capable of running the precious reels. The tapes were not in good condition, so the footage is – sadly – no longer in broadcast quality (quite where Stan kept the tapes we’ll probably never know). Thankfully, we’ve caught it just in time, so despite the visual glitches, the odd missing frame or picture hold, the audio remains rock solid throughout the entire show… and it’s a long one at nearly two-and-a-half hours’ worth!

In fact, the only thing that it didn’t include was the band performance by Good Habit, which wasn’t filmed (although a brief snatch of a soundcheck can be seen, and the lead singer's opening dialogue can also be seen and heard), but everything else was there from start to finish, captured by a single camera located in the gallery. It's an amazing time-trip to a very different era, and I feel amazingly privileged to be one of the first to view it since the original event happened.

Projection behind the band throughout their performance, while Spidey patrolled the audience
giving out special vitamin pills to fortify the audience for the evening ahead (no, really!)

Due to copyright considerations, I hope you'll forgive me for, at present, not uploading even a sampler onto YouTube. If this becomes possible later, then I’ll seek out someone to help me edit the footage slightly into something more manageable, as there are some staging portions that could easily be trimmed or removed to speed things up a bit (the pace is somewhat leisurely by today's standards, shall we say). It would certainly be nice to perhaps hold some kind of special one-off screening at some point. For now, I’ve posted the only two screen grabs that I’ve had time to capture so far (from notes I made of suitable sections during the initial viewings), and you’ll find a brief extract from a full transcription below, which I hope you’ll enjoy.

Most of the extracts published in the fan press were fairly accurate in what they quoted, but it’s great to finally be able to take it from source to eliminate mis-hearings/typing. Naturally, this has been an extremely useful resource in addition to all the audio interviews that Alan Murray held on to, several phone interviews I’ve conducted over the years (Larry Lieber, Herb Trimpe and Neil Tennant), and of course countless e-mail conversations with folks on both sides of the Atlantic.

Okay, I’ll shut up, and get back to working in the final chapters…

The following extract  covering three popular characters of the day (one not even by Marvel!)  comes from the first round of audience Q+As that evening at The Roundhouse before Herb Trimpe came on stage later, and just a few minutes after host Ted Polhemus had finished trying to get to the essence of what made Stan, well, Stan. As to why Ted and/or Stan are repeating the questions, well that was for the benefit of the audience. There was only a small microphone set-up on stage, so questions from the audience are as inaudible on the recording as they would have been to much of the packed crowd too.

Stan Lee captured in full flow, perched on a reversed office swivel chair, with mainly untouched
glasses on the tea-chest in front of the epidiascope that Trimpe will later draw on
(note the frame distortion at the top of the still, and speckling across the image)

Ted: “Now, Stan, tell us about the Silver Surfer”.

Stan: “Silver Surfer! Okay, Silver Surfer time! The Silver Surfer is one of the strangest examples of something that I can think of. Y’know, the way we used to work, I would give the artist a plot because I was writing most of the stories and I didn’t really have time to… I couldn’t write fast enough to keep all these artists busy. So, you’re wondering, what has this to do with the Silver Surfer? Well, in my own roundabout way, you just watch how we zero in on it. So, I’d be writing a script for Jack Kirby, let’s say, and Steve Ditko would come over and say ‘I need a story’, and Don Heck would say ‘I need a story”, and Gene Colan, and here I am finishing Kirby’s, but I could let these guys sit around with nothing to do. So, I would say, ‘Well, look Steve, I can’t write your script now, but here’s what the plot is; I’ll tell you roughly what the idea is. You go home and draw it, then bring it back to me, and I’ll put the copy in later’. And then I would say that to Don, and to Gene, and to everybody else, and in that way I could keep a lot of artists busy at once just by telling them the story idea, letting them draw it any way they wanted, and I’d put all the words in later. I found out it was the best way to work, because I’d get the real creative thinking of the artist, who wasn’t hindered by a detailed script, and when I wrote the copy, I could write copy that was tailored exactly to what the drawings were. Well, I did that with Jack Kirby, and here we get to the Silver Surfer”.

“On a Fantastic Four story, I said, ‘I want you to get a villain called Galactus, and Galactus is a guy who destroys entire planets by draining the energy of that planet, you see, and it may sound crazy but Jack knew what I meant. He went home and drew the thing, and it was great, and when he gave the drawings to me, I looked at the drawings and I said I noticed he had one character flying in the air on a white surfboard, and I said, ‘Who’s this nut on the flying surfboard?’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t know. I figured that anybody named Galactus who can destroy whole planets he ought to have an assistant – a herald who goes ahead of him and finds the planets for him to attack’. That sounded okay to me, but I liked the look of this guy on the surfboard, and Jack and I talked about him, we decided to call him the Silver Surfer, and I was so intrigued by him I said, ‘I’m not going to let him talk just like any ordinary guy, but I’m going to give him dialogue that’ll be, I don’t know, almost biblical. He’ll philosophise about the human condition, and the state of the world, and the insanity of the people on Earth, and the fact they have all these wars, and they have crime and there’s poverty, and race hatred and bigotry, and all the terrible things about the human race’. And I really enjoyed it, and I thought it would be great, but I never really thought that people would relate to the Silver Surfer as much as they did. Little by little a whole cult grew up about this character, and we finally put out a series of Silver Surfer books, which Jack was too busy to draw and we had John Buscema draw them, and they became very popular, but again I got very busy and couldn’t continue it. And now, to answer the question as to what happened to him, and when we’ll bring him back, I have fallen so in love with this character I really don’t want anyone else to write the Silver Surfer. I don’t have time to write the series, so he’s sort of in limbo now, floating round on his surfboard somewhere in the galaxy until I’ll get a chance to write him, because I’m not going to let any other writer… it’s like some parent letting somebody else take care of his kid – I couldn’t do that!”

Ted: “But Stan…” [audience applauds]

Stan: “Thank you, Silver Surfer lovers!” [more applause]

Ted: “You’re like a parent to all of these characters – Spider-Man as well – now you let other people write Spider-Man”.

Ted: “What’s so special about the Silver Surfer then?”

Stan: “Well, I think one of the special things about the Silver Surfer is everybody, even young kids, are really into philosophy, into what’s the world really about and why are we here, and where are we going? And we all like things that are a little bit metaphysical, and I think the Silver Surfer has all that. He has sort of religious overtones without being religious, you know what I mean? I don’t know. It’s a little hard to explain why something fascinates somebody, but look he affects me the same way – he’s the only character I won’t let anybody else write”.

Ted: “How about the guy waving two Titans comics in the air?”

Audience member: [Inaudible question]

Stan: “Ohhh!”

Ted: “The question is, what’s happening about the Superman/Spider-Man team-up? Which I didn’t know anything about, anyway!”

Stan: “Well, I’ve been keeping it a secret from you, Ted! [laughs] The, um… Don’t ask me why, but for some reason somebody came to me and said, ‘Hey, Stan, why don’t you do a team-up book where Superman and Spider-Man will be in the same book’. Well, my first reaction was, ‘You’re crazy!’, then I thought of it a little bit, and ‘Boy, wouldn’t that be something’, but then I said, ‘Ah, nah! We could never do that!’, and then I thought, ‘Well, why couldn’t we do that?’ Well, to make a long story short, I called the Publisher of the Superman company, a guy named Carmine Infantino – and I hope he appreciates me giving him this valuable free publicity – and I said, ‘Hey, Carmine’… and many people don’t know this, but Carmine and I years ago used to work together – he used to draw strips for us, and he was very good, he was a good artist. Anyway, I said, ‘How about if we do a book with Superman and Spider-Man’, and he said the same thing I had said, ‘Ah, you’re crazy, we can’t do that!’, and then he thought a little and said, ‘Hey, wouldn’t that be something!’. Well, we decided, just for fun, maybe the world is ready. You see, I’m happy about it for this reason. Superman was the first superhero. He’s been around for a billion years. Everybody knows about him – they know about him in Australia, China, all over, and he’s almost become a generic word like Kleenex [mild audience laughter] – Spider-Man is new! We’ve pulled him up by his bootstraps. Our little company – and we are a little company compared to Warner Brothers, which owns Superman – our little company has been struggling to make the world aware of Spider-Man and our characters. I might add, you might be interested in knowing, that Spider-Man and Marvel Comics are now the biggest-selling company in America. We out-sell the Superman books [huge cheers and applause] Thank you! But we are still… we are still comparatively a little company, so I thought what a kick this’ll be – finally even the Superman company has to admit and recognise that Spider-Man is as famous, and they have to want Spider-Man with Superman in order to interest their audience, so for that reason I love the idea, you see!”

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

From Cents to Pence! – A story (now) told in 50 chapters (and no more than that, I promise)!

Okay, I think you’re long overdue an update on progress with the book (and how no one pulled me up on the typo in that title-heading, I don’t know – it should have read 46, of course). Now I was all set to write “post-lockdown”, but that’s now become now in-between lockdowns, alas. Thanks for all your comments, and apologies I've only just come back to the blog... but I have been rather productive, so I hope you'll forgive me.

Anyway, it’s all good news for once. As I promised in my last post (and was it really all the way back in January), I’ve worked through much of that material during the time I mentioned while I was furloughed, as well as exploring a few extra tangential research topics that I wasn’t expecting to touch, and completing a rather nifty lengthy archive audio transcription as well. As to what that might be from, well, I suggest you keep an eye on the post directly following this one – yes, two in one week to make up for the dearth of posts this year!

Right now, that leaves me with two main areas to complete, which I’m cracking on with at the moment. Both of which involve the last four or five chapters in the main. And that should be it! The upshot of my current writing on those latter chapters dealing with the Panini era – and that audio transcription creating the need to divide a chapter as well – is that there are now no less than 50 chapters. I’m going to ensure that they don’t get too big that they need subdividing, as 50 is a rather tidy number to work with… and it also fits so neatly with the subject matter at the start of the final chapter that you’d think it was always planned that way! 

Anyway, here’s a more exact chapter breakdown as the book should now appear (and should you so wish, you can play compare and contrast with that previous listing as it stood back in January)... well, should the fancy take you, anyway ;)

1: A brief history of Marvel in America, with a view to highlighting how the early years of Stan Lee’s career pointed the way towards the formation of a British magazine division.

RIVALRY (1951-1971)
2-4: Marvel in British comics from 1951 up to 1970; Developments at Marvel in America that lead up to the start of the British project.

Power Comics house advert from Terrific before the retrenchment began

SYNERGIES (1972-1978)
5-20: The secret origin of British Marvel; The confluence of initially unrelated business decisions that led to the formation of the UK wing, and how Stan Lee, Albert Landau and (yes) Chip Goodman became involved; a tale of two cities – how it was all run under the watchful gaze of Sol Brodsky and Ray Wergan; the backstory behind all the comics they produced from 1972-8.

REVOLUTION (1978-1980)
21-27: The Marvel Revolution! – the inside line on the whys and wherefores of the re-shaping of the UK line in 1979 and the comics they produced.

INDEPENDENCE (1980-1988)
28-36: Title-by-title, through Paul Neary's post-'Revolution' publishing explosion and the start of the ‘Marvel UK’-branding; The third coming of Captain Britain; Their huge success in licensed (toy) comics.

One of several slightly-bigger-than-US sized comics from the mid-1980s - Droids and Alf were others.
Not be confused with any other Dennis, of course!

DUALITY (1988-1994)
37-44: From Marvel UK’s first toe-tip into publishing comics also sold in America, right through to the last knockings of the Overkill-era of UK created American colour comics (which also includes an in-depth title-by-title look at many of the titles that didn't quite happen during that period), and all the UK comics released during that period.

TURBULENCE (1992-1999)
45-47: How Marvel UK was merged with Panini’s UK operation under Marvel America’s control, as the company on both sides of the Atlantic re-orientated after the direct market crash; The birth of the Collector’s Editions.

CONTINUITY (1999 to present) 48-50: The sale of Marvel UK to Panini in the wake of Marvel America’s Chapter 11 deal; The expansion of the Collector’s Editions; Bringing the story up to date.

While you’re digesting all that, I’ll start preparing the next post!