When the first issue of “Fantastic Four” hit the stands in November 1961, it was very much a last throw of the dice, both for Marvel and the increasingly disillusioned Stan Lee. Against all expectations, the title was a hit, encouraging the creation of further heroes including Thor, Spider-Man, Iron Man and Ant Man. As the titles kept coming and fans continued to snap them up, the buzz around Marvel grew: it was apparent that the company’s quirky range of superheroes was becoming a success.
This was made all the more remarkable by the fact that, when “Fantastic Four” debuted, Marvel was a tiny fish in the comics pond, with Stan as one of the few full-time employees. That success came so quickly is down to the quality of the comics themselves, but also Stan’s knack for publicity and marketing. This helped Marvel thrive in the 1960s, and the company has continued to publicize itself in the years since, often in the strangest of ways. In chronological order, we’ve collected together some of the most memorable, disastrous and downright strange Marvel publicity stunts.
15. Bullpen Bulletins/Stan’s Soapbox
Key to Marvel’s appeal during the Silver Age was Stan Lee’s mastery at making readers feel like they belonged. Letters were answered in a conversational manner, while even the credits of the stories addressed readers in a jovial fashion. There was never any chance of a Marvel creator being referred to as a “Mr” or a “Sir.” Instead, they were bestowed jovial nicknames, including Jack “King” Kirby, “Dandy” Dan Adkins and “Jazzy” John Romita.
The introduction of the “Bullpen Bulletins” page was instrumental in helping foster this us-against-the-world mentality. In each installment, which appeared across Marvel’s entire line, readers were regaled with the latest Marvel news and goings on, both about the titles and the creators involved. The most famous part of the page was the legendary “Stan’s Soapbox” column, which saw Lee pontificate on a variety of topical issues, but always extolling the virtues of peace, love and tolerance. Excelsior!
14. The Merry Marvel Marching Society
Given Stan Lee’s fondness for hyperbole, it was no surprise that the launch of Marvel’s first fan club was built up to be a big event. What’s perhaps more surprising is that it delivered, fulfilling Lee’s promise of “an honest-to-gosh far-out fan club in the mixed-up Marvel manner.” For the sum of one dollar, fans received a variety of items, including a membership card, stickers, a big button and a letter of acknowledgement. Fans were even treated to a flexi-disc recording of Lee and Marvel writers and artists ad-libbing and telling jokes, Stan having marched them down to a local recording studio en-masse. Fans already felt like they knew their favorite creators, but now they could even hear them speak.
The society was a huge success; applications flooded into Marvel, with branches springing up in Colleges and Universities nationwide. As the slogan of the society proclaimed: “We don’t know where we’re going, but we’re on the way!” Truly inspiring stuff.
13. The No-Prize
Now we come to an item that’s spoken of in hushed whispers by comic fans of a certain age, with those lucky enough to possess one being the subject of admiration and more than a little envy. It is, of course, the legendary Marvel No-prize. In the early days of Marvel, if a particular letter struck his fancy, Stan would award the writer a no-prize, meaning, essentially, nothing. Over time this was refined, with the non-existent rewards being posted to readers in specially designed envelopes.
To prevent a flood of winners, the criteria grew somewhat stricter over time: the only way to win a no-prize was to spot an error in one of Marvel’s stories. As there were rather more errors than Marvel would perhaps want, this was further refined so that readers not only had to find a mistake, but also invent a plausible explanation for it. It’s a real treat to read old letters pages and see readers concoct the most detailed rationales for what was often simply a colorist’s error, or a simple typo.
12. Defending Comics Against “Seduction Of The Innocent”
The psychiatrist Dr Fredric Wertham published “Seduction of the innocent” in 1954, outlining his theories that the comics of that time were a destructive and immoral influence on the nation’s children. His work had huge ramifications, among which was the instigation of a congressional hearing about the effect comics had on children. This inspired the creation of the comics code authority and caused publishers to move away from horror and crime comics and focus on titles and subjects deemed less controversial. It was this enforced change that encouraged many publishers to revisit the superhero genre, which had decreased in popularity from its heyday in the 1940s.
Despite the success of Marvel and DC in the 1960s, both companies still struggled to overcome preconceptions about comics. By the close of the decade, though, Stan Lee’s growing public profile made him an increasingly effective advocate for the comics industry. In a famous radio debate in November 1968, he argued with Dr Hilda Mosse, a colleague of Wertham’s. The transcript shows that Stan made a passionate defence of comics, rebutting Mosse’s more outrageous claims. From this point on, comics would begin to shake off many of their more negative connotations, with cheerleaders like Lee playing a vital role.
11. Stan Lee’s College Speaking Tours
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Speaker Man! In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, Stan Lee increasingly began to move away from day-to-day involvement with the production of the comics and into the business of publicizing them. Advertising himself as a speaker for hire, he found himself in great demand at Colleges and Universities, with students eager to quiz him about Marvel and the comics industry. College students were a lucrative market for Marvel, while DC had been slow to modernize their superhero comics. As a result, Marvel’s titles were seen by many students as more challenging and adult.
By fully embracing this market, Stan showed himself to be a canny operator. Not only could he get out from behind the typewriter and help build the Marvel “brand,” he could also get a taste of celebrity. With Stan inextricably linked to Marvel Comics, it’s easy to imagine the adoring reception that he received from College Marvel fans.
10. An Evening With Stan Lee At Carnegie Hall
Carnegie Hall has hosted some huge names in the years since it opened in 1891: Judy Garland, The Beatles, Frank Sinatra and Pavarotti, to name but a few. Over two nights in 1972, another name was added to this illustrious list — a certain Stan Lee. This was less about promoting the Marvel brand and more about turning Stan into an actual celebrity in his own right. Unfortunately, the concept and the execution were two very different things.
The reviews of the show were, to put it kindly, rather unimpressive. The show was described as a directionless mess, featuring musical numbers, random dramatic readings and a motley collection of minor celebrities. Beach Boy Dennis Wilson rubbed shoulders (or maybe shoulder to elbow) with the world’s tallest man, while actors in poorly crafted costumes attempted to bring to life Stan’s most famous creations. The experiment was not to be repeated. However, Lee’s desire for a change remained, and his role in the day-to-day business of comic production would steadily decrease in the coming months.
9. Formation Of Marvel UK
In 1972, Marvel expanded its operations to Great Britain, reprinting recent and classic America stories. Initial titles were “The Mighty World of Marvel” and “Spider-Man comics weekly,” with many more appearing in the following months. While these reprints were undoubtedly successful, helping to introduce Marvel characters to a new generation of Brits, perhaps the most significant publications were “Captain Britain” and “Doctor Who weekly.”
Captain Britain would feature in several years’ worth of stories before his defining run under Alan Moore and Alan Davis brought him to new heights. Soon he and his sister Betsy were appearing in the US X-titles, while Moore and Davis would both be snapped up by American companies. “Doctor Who weekly” was a tremendous success and is still being published in 2016, having even survived a 16-year period when there were no new episodes, aside from the 1996 TV movie.
The 1992 expansion of Marvel UK would bring new characters such as Death’s Head 2 to prominence, but was ultimately cut short by the comics implosion of the mid-1990’s. However, both in the creation of new characters and in the discovery of new talent, it’s clear that the imprint has been a great success.
8. Howard the Duck Newspaper Strip
Today, Howard the Duck is best known for appearing in a George Lucas movie that, to put it kindly, failed to achieve the success of more recent comic movies. While recent years have seen him regain his own title, sales are not spectacular and he is far down the pecking order of Marvel characters. But the 70s were a different story. That was the decade that brought us Duckmania.
Make no mistake, Howard was a legitimate star in his early years of publication. When he received his own title in January 1976, reader response was fantastic and sales were impressive. Such was his success that when his own series saw him run for president, rumors persisted that he received thousands of write-in votes in the real 1976 election between Ford and Carter. With this public profile, it’s plain to see why Howard was the second Marvel character (after Spiderf-Man) to be given a newspaper strip, debuting in July 1977 and produced by Steve Gerber and Gene Colan.
7. Secret Wars
Sometimes, inspiration can come from the strangest places. This was certainly the case for “Secret Wars,” a Marvel event that established the template for line-wide crossovers. Unlike modern-day Marvel, this wasn’t a scheme generated to sell thousands of comics and generate a hundred tie-ins. Mattel Toys had decided to manufacture a set of Marvel action figures, and asked the company to produce a comic tie-in. Mattel even came up with the title for the event, leaving Marvel’s editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter, to establish the concept and write the series.
Given these circumstances, it’s amazing how well the event holds up. Today’s comic fans are well used to characters meeting up all the time, but in 1984, a gathering of this size and scope was unheard of in comics. Its success was evident, with the series selling up to 750,000 copies of each issue — huge numbers for this period. Unfortunately, the toy range was not as successful, although the reasons why are mystifying. How could anyone pass up the chance to buy a Doom cycle?
6. Captain America: The Musical
In 1985, long before “Spider-man: Turn off the Dark” had incapacitated its first actor, Captain America came close to starring in his very own Broadway show. Numerous Marvel titles from this period contained a full-page advert looking for girls aged 10-14 to play Cap’s “very special friend” in a “musical spectacular” that was heading to Broadway. The advertisement text was accompanied by an image of Cap with a top hat and cane, his face filled with joy as he took part in what was obviously a particularly enjoyable performance.
The plot would apparently have seen Cap in the grip of a midlife crisis, before having to deal with a hostage situation when his girlfriend was captured by terrorists. Strangely, while it’s difficult to imagine the modern hard-edged Cap in a musical, the character portrayed between the 60s and 80s seems quite a good fit. Featuring epic tear jerkers about Cap’s struggles as a man out of time (and the death of Bucky), and stirring anthems reaffirming his belief in America and its values combined with the iconic imagery linked to Cap would have genuinely been interesting to see play out on the stage. It seems a real missed opportunity that the musical was never produced.
5. Star Comics
Alongside their normal superhero fare, Marvel had achieved great success with licensed properties. “Star Wars,” “Conan,” “Transformers” and “ROM” were some of the many titles to become solid sellers for the company. Where the Star Comics line differed is that, although it was a mix of new properties and licensed characters, it was aimed solidly at children. For years, the comic industry had been desperate to show that it had grown up: this line was a welcome return to talking animals, humor and cartoons, servicing a demographic that many publishers, with the exception of Archie comics, had forgotten.
The licensed properties in this line that saw the greatest success included “Heathcliff,” “Strawberry Shortcake,” “The Muppet Babies,” “Fraggle Rock,” “The Ewoks,” “Alf” and “Barbie.” Falling sales eventually led to the dissolution of the line, with many of the remaining titles incorporated into the main Marvel line. Since this point, while Marvel has continued to dabble in comics for younger readers, these have tended to be variations on superheroes (The “Marvel Adventures” line, or “Mini Marvels”). With younger readers remaining an untapped market, perhaps this line may see a comeback in the future.
4. Spider-Man Balloon In Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is an American institution. First occurring in 1924, it is the second oldest Thanksgiving Day parade in the USA, featuring a huge assortment of performers, floats and bands. It has been televised nationally by NBC since 1952, guaranteeing significant promotion for anyone featured. In 1987, the Amazing Spider-Man joined this elite group when he was chosen to be one of the inflated icons in the parade. Seventy-eight feet long by thirty-six feet wide, he was designed by Spidey’s old pal, John Romita. Captured in mid-crawl pose, Spidey really looks the part of his comic book inspiration.
The benefits to Marvel of Spidey appearing in the parade are huge, with millions seeing the float in person and many more watching on television. There’s also a certain amount of validation that an appearance in the parade brings: confirmation, if any were needed, that Spidey is truly an essential part of American popular culture.
3. The Wedding Of Spider-Man And Mary Jane
The courtship between Peter and Mary Jane was a long one, punctuated by the typical on-off, will they-won’t they process of a soap opera relationship. What’s interesting about their eventual reconciliation and marriage is that it didn’t stem from the writers of his comic adventures. The story goes that Stan Lee, writing the Spider-Man newspaper strip, decided that a wedding between the two would make the newspaper strip more realistic and “adult.” When Jim Salicrup, the Spider-Man editor at the time, was informed, he quickly made plans for their wedding to appear in the comics in the pages of “Amazing Spider-Man” annual #21.
By itself, the wedding of such a big-name superhero would generate publicity, but Marvel took this to the next level. “Spider-Man” and “Mary Jane” exchanged their vows on 5th June 1987 at New York’s Shea Stadium. Fittingly, due to his involvement in bringing about the event, Stan Lee officiated.
2. Marvel Islands Of Adventure (Universal Studios)
In 1999, the “Islands of Adventure” resort was opened at Universal Studios, Florida, and included an island specifically devoted to Marvel Comics: Marvel Superhero Island. For comic fans, the island is a treat for the senses. Superheroes walk the street, stopping only to flex their muscles or pose for photographs, while the island’s architecture is nicely expressive. The rides are also great fun, being well-matched with the superheroes that adorn them. The Incredible Hulk roller coaster hurtles thrill seekers through loops and turns at breakneck speed, while Spider-Man has a stomach-jolting 3-D simulator ride that takes participants around New York.
Inevitably a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is involved. When interacting with superheroes, it’s best not to draw attention to any askew wigs, or the fact that Captain America may appear to have been on an all-Twinkie diet. There’s also a missed opportunity in merchandising — the resort traditionally having a huge selection of clothing and apparel, but a limited collection of comics and trades. On the whole, though, the existence of this attraction is a great thing for Marvel. It gives the publisher visibility in a prime tourist destination and will have given countless children happy memories of meeting their idols.
1. Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark
It seemed like a winning formula. A popular Marvel character + music and lyrics from members of U2 + eye-popping special effects = a record-setting musical. At least, that was the plan. In reality, Marvel’s first Broadway musical has gone down in history as an expensive flop, one that became more famous for its production troubles than for the quality of its show.
Part of the problem is that the makers of the musical were commendably ambitious. The show was highly technical, with actors swinging from “webs,” and a number of aerial combat scenes. A number of performers were injured, costs spiraled and the script was constantly rewritten. The production incurred fines from various bodies for safety violations; in fact, one of the reasons for the termination of its Broadway run, in 2014, was that the production could no longer get injury insurance. The producers declared their intention to take the show on a musical tour in 2016, but this has yet to materialize. If it does, Spider-Man may be coming to a theater (and quite possibly an Emergency Room) near you.
The above are just some of the ways that Marvel have kept their colorful cast of characters in the public eye. Let us know what you think of our choices, and if we’ve missed your favorite publicity stunts, be sure to let us know!
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