Face front, true believers! Welcome to the seventh instalment of ‘Marketing Madness’, as we leave behind discussion of variant covers and spurious re-launches and head back to the 60s. That’s right, we’re heading back to the dawn of the Marvel age, when the introduction of the Fantastic Four heralded the beginning of Marvel’s renaissance, helping them capture the hearts and minds of a generation.
With Stan Lee now a media personality as opposed to a comic creator, it’s sometimes easy for his contributions to the comics’ field to be taken for granted. Certainly, what comic work he has published in the last 20 years has offered little glimpse of the formidable talent that contributed to so many memorable tales in the 1960s. But Stan’s skills as a writer, and the extent to which he deserves credit for some of his most famous works, is a subject for another column. Today our focus is on his skill as a marketer extraordinaire: showman, huckster, magician and shyster rolled into one. Whole books can and have been written on the reasons behind Marvel’s success in the 1960s, but there are four specific areas that I think were of particular importance in helping them strike marketing gold.
1. A Shared Universe
The tradition of heroes crossing over into each other’s titles was not new. DC showcased Superman and Batman teaming up on a monthly basis in World’s Finest, while Marvel/Timely had shown the destructive clash between the Human Torch and the Submariner in 1940. Where 1960s Marvel differed is that such meetings were more organic. The majority of Marvel’s heroes were based in New York City which meant, inevitably, that heroes would appear in other titles, even if only in the background of panels. Furthermore, setting these characters in a real world location was in direct contrast to DC’s use of imaginary locations (Gotham City, Metropolis, Star City, etc.), instantly helping Marvel’s titles appear more ‘realistic’ to readers.
While this may seem a minor detail, I feel that the use of continuity was a major factor in entrenching Marvel’s 1960s success. Unlike the traditional model of done-in-one stories that DC was only then beginning to move away from, Marvel characters remembered and referred to past adventures. They grew and changed, rewarding readers for following their exploits, while the use of multi-part stories was a further inducement for fans to follow titles on a regular basis instead of dipping in sporadically.
It was in the use of publicity that Stan Lee truly excelled, with Marvel consistently being promoted as the youthful, happening alternative to the old fashioned DC. The success of this strategy, with many of the most prominent creators such as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby already being in their 40s, deserves special admiration! In a general sense, there were a whole range of initiatives designed to make the readership feel an integral part of Marvel, promoting the image that creators and fans were joined in one happy family.
Stan gave each staff member a nickname in the credits of each comic. Examples included Stan ‘The Man’ Lee, Jack ‘King’ Kirby, ‘Rascally’ Roy Thomas, ‘Jazzy’ John Romita, and ‘Adorable Artie Simek’. A random issue from the 1960s – issue 67 of Tales of Suspense from 1965, provided the following credits: “Written by our roguish writer, Stan Lee; Pencilled by our prankish penciller, Don Heck; Inked by our impish inker, Mickey Demeo; Lettered by our other letterer, S. Rosen; And read by our rollickin’ reader… You!” If you can read that without cracking a smile then you must have a heart of stone, and I’m sure that such credits not only helped make the creators more identifiable but also more human and more approachable to readers.
This era of Marvel’s history is filled with bizarre methods of promotion, yet there is one in particular that has become renowned across comic fandom, its recipients basking in the celebrity that possession brings. Not bad for an empty envelope. That’s right, it’s the legendary No-Prize. In the early days of Marvel, if a particular letter struck his fancy then 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 had not only to find a mistake, but also invent a plausible explanation for it.
The Marvel Bullpen is such an iconic image that when I first began reading Marvel comics in the 1980s, it was my greatest desire to visit the Marvel offices and see this incredible concentration of talent squeezed into one place. This invention by Stan, depicting the Marvel office as a wild and crazy place where artists and writers worked side-by-side, coming up with new ideas and thinking up crazy schemes, was a masterstroke. The reality was somewhat different. During the early 1960s, Marvel occupied a tiny two-person office on Madison Avenue, the majority of staff members being freelancers who only occasionally visited the offices.
The final element in helping cement Marvel’s popularity was the launch of its very own fan club, the ‘Merry Marvel Marching Society’, in January 1965, promoted as “an honest-to-gosh far-out fan club in the mixed up Marvel manner.” The club was an immediate success with thousands of eager readers sending in their membership fees. For $1 each member received an assortment of goodies including a membership card, stickers and a big button. Members were referred to as ‘Mighty Marvel’s Merry Marchers’ and the slogan became, “we don’t know where we’re going but we’re on the way!” The most bizarre freebie was a five minute record that featured Marvel staff members ad-libbing and telling jokes. It also had the most wonderfully catchy theme song, which you can listen to below.
3. Reader interaction
If there is one thing that kids hate, it’s being talked down to, and another savvy move by Stan was to position himself and other Marvel creators as friends and confidantes instead of figures of authority. This format was most noticeable in the letters pages, where Stan answered the letters himself and made each reader feel as if their opinion mattered. Letters were frequently altered to make the terms of address less formal, with the response delivered in an honest, open manner.
This use of honesty was another important factor in helping Marvel appear as genuine, creating a positive impression with readers. In his autobiography, Excelsior, Stan writes that he believed honesty was crucial in strengthening the bond between Marvel and its readers. He recounts an incident when he had written a story that he wasn’t too impressed with, but there was no time to alter it without missing the deadline. Instead, on the cover he wrote: “Look, this may not be one of the best stories we’ve ever done, but we’ve given you enough good ones so that you owe it to us to buy this lemon anyway.” The resulting fan mail praised the company for being so honest.
Stan also created a column called ‘Stan’s Soapbox’, where each month he would discuss different subjects with the readers. This contained Stan’s thoughts on everything from comics to current affairs and was designed to make readers feel that they had a valuable insight into Marvel. Depending on your taste for overblown rhetoric, these columns will either be inspirational or asinine to the modern reader. However, with this direct line to the readership, coupled with his perceived honesty and straightforward style, Stan – and Marvel by association – made the transition from ‘one of them’ to ‘one of us’.
4. Brand identity
Crucial to the development of Marvel during the 1960s was the solidification of their brand identity, convincing readers that comics by Marvel were more relevant and more worthy of their time. As the Marvel line expanded, new characters and titles were advertised as being in the ‘Mighty Marvel Style’. This implied a focus on characterisation, gripping plots, continued stories, ‘more human’ heroes, and comics that did not talk down to their readers.
At the beginning of the Marvel Age, when the company lagged far behind DC in sales, the company gloried in its position as a smaller, more energetic publisher. The third issue of the Fantastic Four saw the addition of the slogan, “The Greatest Comic Magazine in the World’, soon altered to read ‘The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine’. Marvel creators, and Lee in particular, didn’t believe in hiding their light under a bushel. As the decade wore on and Marvel added one smash hit title after another, it did appear as if other comic companies were standing still in comparison.
Of course, youthful inventiveness can’t always be maintained, and each new generation creates their own idols. It’s therefore not surprising that as Marvel entered the 1970s it appeared increasingly tired, the successful marketing techniques having become overly familiar and objects of parody to some. Yet for that period in the 1960s the company tapped into something special, laying the foundations for the media giant that exists today. While many people played a part in this – and will likely have their real contribution unrecorded – it’s undeniable that Stan Lee was instrumental in helping Marvel grow and prosper during this tme. For that reason, Stan becomes the first recipient of this column’s ‘Marketing Master’ award.