Friday, 19 March 2021

Promises, promises... why I want From Cents to Pence! completed in 2021

Inspired by one thoughtful response posted on this site yesterday, and in line with my promise to run more regular updates, I thought it might be useful to explain precisely why you haven't seen From Cents to Pence! before now... and why that is actually a very positive thing.

As you may be aware, the original impetus for this book dates all the way back to 1990, and my growing curiosity about what had and hadn't appeared in Marvel's British comics, in order to create a wants to list to plug holes where stories were skipped (Marvel Team-Up I'm particularly looking at you!) or to supplement for any series where stories were butchered... ahem... 'edited' for reasons of continuity, format (the Marvel Revolution) or space. A nice little summer job, I thought ;)

Armed with the only available tools - a set of those wonderful George Olshevsky Marvel Index books (this was pre-internet days after all, folks), and later the Marvel cover book from the library - I set to the appointed task with gusto. The result was a large heap of paper and some very strange results in some places. For instance, one series appeared to have had far more stories published in the UK than in the US, which surely couldn't be right... could it?

Clearly more work was required, and during a period of several years between jobs, this gave me the time to start developing things further - buying up cheap sets of comics to reference titles not covered by Olshevsky, as yet, where my friend didn't own those issues (and thanks for letting me view, and buy some of, what you did have, Andrew!). Comics International then arrived and I was soon able to take full advantage of the small ads to fill in most of the gaps in my UK collection so that I could then fully index every story in every UK edition.

By the mid-1990s, my aim was to produce a British equivalent of those Olshevsky guides. If not for the regular persistence of Steve Holland (then editor of Comic World magazine) and Dez Skinn - who kindly allowed me to join Comics International's 'brains trust' on their Q&A pages (also publishing my story search requests) - that I should write a history as well, then it's likely that a guide to Marvel UK's published output would have appeared during the early Noughties as the internet allowed me to complete that research.

Now, I'm not trying to apportion any blame here, I should add! Steve and Dez were absolutely right to gently keep encouraging me to go further, and I'm glad that they did. I'd always been curious about the unwritten back story of Marvel in Britain, but just never expected to be the one to write it. With so little information out there pre-WWW, it seemed an impossible task, as three abandoned drafts working to a thin skeleton outline seemed to prove. Still, letters to other publications, particularly the late, lamented CBG, drew some interesting responses, and the arrival of the internet then opened up all sorts of new contact opportunities. None of us ever expected where this would all end up!

WHAT YOU ALMOST SAW - Parts 1 and 2
In one of its earlier guises, the book had been known as The Mighty World of Marvel UK, at least until Panini's revival of the comic that had inspired the name well and truly scotched that idea. A pre-DTP manual artwork, paste-up version under that name had been largely completed by then, and a copy was sent to the Comics International offices. I was later told that this invoked a mixture of fear and wonder amongst staffers at the scope and detail of the indices, and after a long quizzing from Dez with regards to my self-publishing plans, he offered to come on board as editor. I was hardly going to say no, was I?!

So, why didn't the book then come out circa 2005? Well, CI was still taking up a lot of Dez's time and so publication plans were simmered until he sold the magazine to new owners and began to develop his new publishing plans - the fruits of which we've now been seeing in recent times with various Quality collected editions. With more information increasingly coming to light by 2010 my history had reached a point where it seemed to be as complete as I could make it based on what I'd uncovered up to that point.

By 2010, magazines like Comic Book Marketplace, Comic Book Artist, Alter Ego and Back Issue had become a boon for new UK-related facts issuing forth from their many interviewees, and by then I'd spoken to many of the people I'd hoped to locate, some who'd been put in touch with me by others such as Alan Murray and Herb Trimpe, and a few who I didn't know before then, but who also had great stories to tell.

Of course, there were others who'd slipped through the net, and if you've been following this blog since it began, you'll know that I regarded two of the most important misses as Ray Wergan and Neil Tennant. Still, I couldn't wait forever, and by then I was teaching myself the use of InDesign as I began to construct a new electronic layout based on the original paste-up version, and in the build up to Marvel UK's 30th anniversary it seemed the perfect time to wrap things up. I'd completed several chapters before that fateful Saturday during 2011...

It's a good job that I hadn't turned over more than one page of that Saturday's edition of The Times, because a name immediately jumped out at me in their, always fascinating, often sparky, reader Feedback column. That correspondent was one Raymond Wergan, writing about the use of columnist's photos in the paper. Knowing by then that Wergan had run an agency supplying photos and other materials to the press, while also looking after Marvel's output until Dez had taken over in late 1978, I knew I'd found my man!

Dashing upstairs later that day to pen an urgent request, the columnist hosting the feature at the time very kindly, and promptly forwarded an introductory letter to Ray, and a few days later he responded to me directly. A decade long conversation then commenced, although I admit that neither of us would ever have expected that outcome back then.

Ray had never been interviewed about his involvement with Marvel before, and as the months rolled on, it became clear that while nothing I'd written thus far was really wrong, bar a few specific details, there was so much more I'd been unaware of and he had a lot to say about the operation that had never been revealed before. Answers to questions revealed new questions that needed asking, much like lifting up a huge boulder to secure a fossil only to reveal another hidden underneath, and as I began to further investigate and research the things I was learning, so many other new things were then uncovered.

Naively, I expected this process to extend completion of the text by a year or so, but thought it definitely worth the wait. In the meantime, I'd uncovered a whole other side to the history of Marvel in America that had led up to the decision to go for Britain in a big way in late 1972, knowing now why it was that year that MWOM had started up and not in any other one. And then there was the discovery of the Stan Lee archives at Wyoming University, and a treasure trove of British paperwork as well as that Roundhouse recording. While I wouldn't finally get to finally view that footage until last year (as posted about recently here), by then I'd quickly made full use of Lee's archived paperwork straightaway and had spoken to Neil Tennant by another quirk of fate (also posted here after the fact). One productive weekend of trawling the 'net had also managed to locate two British editors in one go - Peta Skingley and Maureen Softley. Everything was happening at once, and the discoveries were thrilling.

Of course, I do have a personal life and a demanding job too. At this point a confluence of various things occurred to slow my progress, but in-between I still pushed forward. In 2017 I then came to an abrupt standstill, with echoes of the present world situation, when I was completely flattened by a particularly nasty flu strain doing the rounds that left me with an infected lung and a five-month recuperation in all during a glorious spring and summer. Weirdly, the first lockdown last year almost perfectly matched that period from start to finish, and with much the same weather, too. It wasn't until the spring of 2018 that I felt ready to ease back into looking at the book afresh, and it was soon obvious what parts of the text needed more work to finish things off.

After spending six years cycling around the period 1951 to 1978, as I read further on past that point, some chapters - written, in the main, many years earlier now - were too patchy in places and not presented in the same depth that the first half of the book was. It would have been jarringly obvious to anyone reading things as they stood. The key areas were obvious, and it's those I've been ticking off ever since. Captain Britain and the Overkill era were two big areas to be completed. A full overview of The Real Ghostbusters was added at last during 2020, leaving later chapters involving Doctor Who and the final four devoted to the Panini era still to be completed.

An American cover converted by the Power Comics team into a recap page, introducing the plot for that week's Avengers instalment inside the pages of Fantastic #72.

I'll be coming back to those latter chapters in the next few weeks after I've finished updating all the indices to accommodate The Real Ghostbusters and several other series that I was previously unable to feature, as they were not titles I'd bought at the time. I've also been working on two parallel projects with fellow researchers that will also feed into the book, one of which will provide a skeleton guide to the many nursery titles not indexed in the book, the other providing accurate credits for the US artists involved on covers, pin-ups and splash pages during 1972 to 1979 or so. I also managed to complete, and typeset, a long-running TV21 index last year, and over 2/5 of a Power Comics index for potential inclusion too.

Galaxy Rangers advert - a series now fully indexed alongside the merger with Thundercats, the later Annual and the strip in the Marvel Bumper Comic Holiday Special

After finally getting to watch the Roundhouse footage last year, and by a fluke, finding a specialist researcher just before the pandemic who managed to locate something special for me in the British Library (a vital, unrecorded until now, connecting point between TV21 and MWOM) - both of which were vital loose threads that still needed stitching in - it suddenly feels like everything has finally fallen into place in a way that it obviously hadn't back in 2011. The book is now a very different beast from that presumptuous young cub that thought it was finished a decade earlier, and I think all the better for its delayed maturity.

I hope this reassures you that the long journey to complete From Cents to Pence! has been a worthwhile one, and that I'm not hanging things out so as 'just' to keep adding in the latest nugget of information - that's a process that could go on forever! I've long since accepted that a book like this will never be truly complete when there's always more out there still to be revealed.

As further proof of this desire to finally wrap things up, due to the decade it's taken to effectively overwrite and reshape much of what I had into something which now tells a much more unexpected story (and I never thought I'd end up writing so much about Marvel in America, for one thing), there simply aren't enough hours in the day to now go back and expand the indices to also cover the first two decades of the Panini era in full. As a compromise, for his edition I intend to provide full details of all the regular titles, Specials, Annuals that have been released from 2000 up to the end of 2020, but will only be able to list any originated material they contained - a full series-by-series catalogue of all the US material they contained, in the style adopted for everything published from 1972 up to 1999, will take some time to research and assemble (that's hundreds of pages of records to go through, as I've been logging everything as its released, title-by-title over the past two decades plus) and so will have to wait for a future, updated edition should that ever become a desirable necessity.

So, I hope you're now convinced that I really do want to get this wrapped up, not just for my own sanity, but to allow you to finally see what all this fuss has been about! And, of course, 2022 will mark 70 years of Marvel in British comics, in all its many forms, starting with Thorpe & Porter right through to Panini, which is surely something to celebrate!

Wednesday, 10 March 2021

From Cents to Pence! - Celebrating 70 years of Marvel in the UK: 2021 update 1

As promised, heres the latest in a more regular (I hope) series of updates in the months to come on the progress of From Cents to Pence!

The pandemic has been a difficult time and induced a strange mixture of emotions for everyone. Ive been fortunate enough to have been in a position to make good use of both the first, and now latest, lockdowns to massively push forward work on the book, such as filling in the remaining Thundercats information from the few issues I never bought (its a long story, and a rare and stupid mistake, as Ive never been able to purchase more than a handful of them since for my own collection), and also inserting a huge amount of information into the history and indices covering almost every issue from the various series connected to The Real Ghostbusters, along with full details of the long-lived main title. These were all major omissions from the book, of course, so a huge thanks to all those who provided scans or the relevant hard-copy details.

During these unexpected periods of research, on both occasions Ive also found myself taking unexpected, but useful detours in to areas I hadnt expected to look at until any future up-dated edition - this time around due to managing to lock myself out of my laptop due to a saving glitch.

The other useful outcome of this unexpected break from hardcore typesetting and formatting has also inspired a slight change to the shape of the chapter structure, in as much as Ive reduced the number of grouped headings, inspired by the solution to a clue in The Puzzler no less (a title that I originally started purchasing regularly not long after discovering Marvels own range of British published delights, only abandoning sometime in the mid 1980s until now, except for the occasional Christmas and anniversary edition).

This simple change to the chapter groupings, which also obliterates those untidy date overlaps, seems so blindingly obvious that Ive no idea why it has never occurred to me before now! It also provides something that has been lacking before now - a straightforward terminology for viewing the overall shape of Marvels relationship with Britain since 1951, in the same way that such terminology has long been applied to American comics as a whole, from the Golden Age to the Modern Age and beyond. In Britain, the defining eras are much sharper to zoom in on, but see what you think with the revised groupings below...

THE LICENSED AGE (1951-1971)
Chapters 1-4: 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; Marvel in British comics from 1951 up to 1970; Developments at Marvel in America that led up to the start of the British project.

Power Comics house advert from Terrific before the retrenchment began

THE MARVEL AGE (1972-1978)
Chapters 5-20: The secret origin of British Marvel; The confluence of initially unrelated business decisions in America 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.

THE MARVEL UK AGE (1978-1999)
Chapters 21-36: The Marvel Revolution! – the inside line on the whys and wherefores of the re-shaping of the UK line in 1979 and the comics now produced directly by the London office; 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!

Chapters 37-47: Moving on through Marvel UK’s first toe-tip into publishing comics also sold in America, 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; 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.

THE PANINI AGE (1999-2021+)
Chapters 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; New formats, experiments and surviving perhaps the most difficult period of history that publishers have had to face in centuries.

And that’s it... at least for now!

P.S. Apologies for the repeated illustrative material from the last post on this topic, which is entirely due to having to fall back on a more basic computer in the interim.