Saturday, March 2, 2019

1977: The Year I stopped Reading Comics



By the mid 1970s I had long been a comic book fan and “keeper.”  I gave up regularly reading comics in 1977 and I have, in recent years, often been asked why.  There were several reasons as the industry went through great changes in that era.  You are certainly entitled to agree or disagree with my views, and I hope you will post your experiences. BUT PLEASE DO NOT explain why so many changes were made, I am responding to just what was in the comics

Reason #1: Girls. And money. I wanted to date and the price of comics was getting out of hand.  In 1965, for example, I could afford to buy all ten Marvel Age comics for just over a dollar each month. (By “Marvel Age” I mean all the super-hero titles and Sgt. Fury. I am excluding reprints teen-age romance and westerns.) At twelve cents each, it cost $1.20 per month, perhaps $1.45 if an Annual came out.  As a measurement, minimum wage then was $1.25, so working about one hour a month paid for my comics.



I had what I call the “90%” rule. That is, I usually liked nine out of the ten comics published each month from 1961 to 1968.  There was occasionally astinker in the bunch.


For 36 years, 1933-1969, the price of comics increased only 20 percent. In the next seven years comic book prices tripled from 12 cents to 35 cents.  But Marvel and DC also added “Giant-Size” and other specials that cost way more.


Let’s see what comics would set you back in 1976. In an average month, late in 1976 Marvel had 29 regular titles at 30 cents each, which came to $8.70; 4 “giant-size/annual” at 50 cents = $2.00; 4 magazines at $1.00 cents and a Treasury edition at $1.50 for a grand total cost of $16.25. (Granted, the number of comics produced each month had tripled and the single copy cost doubled.)





The minimum wage in 1976 was $2.30. So it would take almost 9 hours, with tax deductions, at minimum wage to buy all those comics Marvel produced in one month. I guess many readers, if they were anything like I was, then began to pick and choose.  But I was also losing at the “90%” rule. I was enjoying maybe one quarter to half the comics, but more on that later.



Reason #2:  I had basically given up on DC and other companies.  DC comics were written for younger people. This not only meant simplified plot and little character development, but they operated with the knowledge that they lost their readers at age 15 or 16. While the first 25 issues of any DC title might be interesting, the stories quickly became repetitive. Many that I liked, Green Lantern, Deadman (in Strange Adventures), were discontinued anyway.  A.C.G. was now long gone as was Dell. Charlton and Western seemed to come and go on the newsstand, mostly printing licensed properties of children’s T.V. shows.







Reason #3:  I was disappointed when Jack Kirby left Marvel in 1970 and went to DC. I know you expect me to say that my disappointment was due to Kirby’s leaving Marvel, but that wasn’t it. I expected Kirby to have an influence at DC and that their comics would grow up. They didn’t.   I am a huge Kirby fan and he started my love for comics with Challengers of the Unknown in the late fifties. Here you had the single-most important graphic artist of his generation, who had co-created a staggering number of characters that are still among the most popular heroes of all time, and his output for DC was disappointing. At first I found Kirby’s New Gods and Fourth World hard to read, then it became impossible I wanted to like them—it was Jack Kirby after all. Kirby learned to write in the style of Joe Simon in the 1940s, when dialogue was all plot. By 1970, Stan Lee’s influence in writing was prevalent.  Stan, along with “Marvel” trained Roy Thomas, demonstrated a gift for characterization and personality in dialogue. Kirby failed here. Despite an impressive number of new characters (including the Demon, OMAC, and Kamandi) none lasted long enough to influence DC very much. (I did, however, like The Losers, Spirit World and In the Days of the Mob.)


Reason #4: Atlas Comics: I was excited that an entire new line of comics was coming out. Martin Goodman, the publisher who gave us the Marvel Age, sold Marvel and started a new company, Atlas. When the Marvel Age began with the Fantastic Four Goodman slowly brought out new characters and titles. When something didn’t work, they changed it.  Ant-Man became Giant Man; Iron Man got a new costume and supporting characters, Daredevil changed his costume, the Avengers changed their line-up stuff like that.









Atlas, for its very brief time, was totally inconsistent in its characterization, in its writing and its artists. Characters changed and even disappeared, writers went in different directions and no vision of a complete universe was there. I was disappointed that it failed so quickly.






Reason #5: Loss of Vision.  The Marvel Age began with Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Don Heck creating the Marvel Universe. They were aided and abetted by Larry Lieber and Dick Ayers.  They produced they best comics they could, linking them all together. Roy Thomas, Gene Colan, John Buscema and John Romita were brought in mostly to continue what the “Big Four” began. Stan had said that he wanted to think of the ten monthly comics as one big one. In 1973 Stan Lee becomes publisher.   His vision of a single unified universe, so well carried on by Roy Thomas until he stepped down as editor, seem to evaporate as new editors came and went so quickly.

By 1977, that entire group of four was gone and so was Stan vision. As Marvel had quickly expanded from 10 to 40 titles new writers and artists had to be brought in.  Many writers were not “trained” in the Marvel way, concentrating on the story plot only, not on characterization or personality. Of course, I felt the artwork suffered.


Reason #6: Many titles for same characters.  In the beginning Stan was the only editor and often the only writer. Continuity, not seen at the other companies, was a paramount of the Marvel success. Characters grew and their personalities become part of the storyline. At DC, it seemed, all heroes had to appear in at least two comics. In any given month, Superman appeared in eight separate titles and Batman at least four.  In January of 1965, Superman appeared in Action #320, Superman #174, Lois Lane #54, Jimmy Olsen #82, Superboy #118, and #Adventure 328. The next month he also appeared Action, Superman, Lois Lane, World’s Finest and Justice League of America. With different writers and editors it was impossible to have any sort of continuity and no growth. In 1965, you could pick up a Superman comic from 1961 and find no difference in character development. Lois Lane continued to conspire to find out his secret identity, Jimmy Olsen continued to turn into a giant turtle man, and Superman would appear old, fat, bald, tall, short or disabled. There were no adventures, there was just gimmicks. Their best stories were imaginary.









Not so at Marvel. Characters fell in love and had their hearts broken, had doubts about their place in the world.  At Marvel, time passed (albeit slowly). In fact, Stan Lee wrote when he removed Iron Man and Thor from the Avengers in 1965: Didja know the real reason we changed the AVENGERS lineup? Here it is, honest injun! Iron Man, Thor, and Giant-Man were all starring in their own mags. After a while, it didnt seem right to have one of them captured in Transylvania in his own mag, while he might be taking in the Late Show on TV in the AVENGERS! The truth is, it seemed to kill all the realismall the immediacy of both strips! In fact, thats why we took the Torch and Bashful Benjamin out of Strange Tales.






By the early 1970s this was no longer true at Marvel. Spider-Man had Amazing Spider-Man, Spectacular Spider-Man, and Marvel Two in One, and Giant-Size Spider-Man along with appearing in reprints of Marvel Tales and in Spidey Super-Stories (from the creators of Sesame Street.)  By the mid 1970s all major characters appeared in two books. The worst offender was the Defenders where “loners” Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer, the Hulk teamed up.



Roy Thomas originally wrote the Fantastic Four and Marvel Two-In-One featuring the Thing. When Jim Shooter took him off Two-In-One, Thomas left the Fantastic Four because he knew there would no longer be continuity.  One Marvel author told me that writing the team books was like writing an “Earth II” story at DC because you could not change the original character.


Here’s a secret and it is MY opinion. Sue and Reed got married and had a child that grew to be about six years old and stopped. Peter Parker and the X-Men graduated high school and went to college. Then, continuity stopped and they everyone froze in time.  I REALLY think it’s because Stan never thought the characters would go on longer than 15 years. Other than Superman, no super-hero at that time, had successfully endured. (Batman and Wonder Woman were failing in the early 1960s)
                
Reason #7: I AM NOT a great horror fan, but I enjoyed Warrens’ Creepy and Eerie in the beginning because it had great artists, sometimes fie writing and was just not another comic book. So was excited when Marvel announced it was entering the Black and White magazine world. Previously they had published The Spectacular Spider-Man and Savage Tales. Both featured stories that were more adult and without the Comics Code. So I looked forward to this so much. Not unlike the Atlas comic, Marvel burst on the scene here producing a huge amount of similar comics, rather that slowly bring them out and developing them.  They were erratic and expensive. They featured many text stories (which I didn’t read) and a boatload of reprints from color comics, but now in black and white. At this time Marvel has MANY color comics, at a lower price, reprinting stories from the same era. It is interesting that the horror magazines (Dracula Lives, Vampire Tales, Tales of the Zombie, Monsters Unleashed, and Savage Tales) faded by issue #12.   Conan, Hulk, Crazy (humor) Planet of the Apes, Deadly Hands of Kung Fu lasted longer.  I really, really began to see that Marvel was more interested in quantity and filling up the newsstands then quality.



Reason 8: Also, to my surprise, I would buy a comic with a new cover but a reprint would be inside with some explanation on why there was a reprint.  I was paying with new money, but getting an old comic. The page count in the Marvel comics, early 1960s, when comics were 1/3 the prices was often 24, then 20 pages for the full length comics as 22 of the anthologies such as Tales of Suspense. They were down to 17 pages by 1976.






Reason 9: Titles began to come and go quickly, without any resolution.  The Black Panther in Jungle Action, Skull the Slayer, Omega, Man-Wolf and many others had brief comic book runs, but ended on cliff-hangers that would not be resolved during this period (Many were resolved years later.)  This, to me, should like of respect to the readers. Even the WORST titles were selling over 150,000 a month, yet Marvel seem to show no need to satisfy those readers who were probably reading their other comics.







Man-Wolf in Creatures on the Loose

Killraven



I loved John Kowalski in "War is Hell"



Reason #10: Lost connection with readers: There always seemed to be a connection between the comic companies and the readers. DC had Superman of America, Archie had a fan club and Marvel had not just the M.M.M.S but FOOM and magazines that went out to fans. When Stan left as editor that connection was lost.











Reason #11: There were THREE major changes in comic book production at Marvel that really made the comics virtually unreadable to by the mid-1970s.


  • 1   By 1970, to save money on negatives, the industry shrunk the size of the boards used for original artwork by about 1/3. This meant that artists would be putting in far less detail and background work.
  • 2.    Due to inflation there was aa paper shortage in the 1970s and its price went up. Therefore, the paper publishers used was of significantly less quality and the quality of the artwork, already diminished, got worse.
  • 3.   Marvel decided NOT to use the traditional metal printing plates and switched to the cheaper PLASTIC plates. (Insiders called them paper plates.)  The combinations of these three events lead to comics that literally were unreadable. The lines and lettering blurred, the details were gone, and the colors seemed blotted on.  This was, for me, the last straw.
It doesn't show up well here, but this is a scan from the original Deathlok story. It was hard to read and, blown up to its regular size was blurry.

This is from the recent Masterworks, reproduced correctly


I  wonder if I just outgrew comics. There was just so many times I could read about Galactus coming to Earth and getting a new herald, or the Sub-Mariner attacking the Surface World or the Red Skull, thought dead returning. None of my girlfriends ever cared about them and thought they were childish to read.  When I stopped, I did look into older comics such as EC.  But I don’t remember ever missing the new comics.

As a kid, I told people I read Superman, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and Avengers and so on.  As an adult I realized what I was reading was Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Jim Steranko and Roy Thomas. 

When Kirby leaves Marvel in 1977, and all the other original creators were gone, I left too. My Silver Age was over.




Once again a big shout out to Carl Thiel who helped me with this article!!!! It is great to discuss these blogs with someone while you are putting them together.

15 comments:

  1. Barry, I originally stopped buying comics around the same time, and for many of the same reasons. So many comics from the mid-70s left me cold: Champions, Inhumans, etc. And especially Kirby's return to Marvel. The last straw, I think, was Kirby turning Black Panther into some frenetic adventurer after McGregor's incredible work on the strip in the preceding three years.

    I got back into the habit again about four years later, when my new wife discovered my Silver Surfer and Conan collection and encouraged me to get back into it. This would have been around early 1982, and I got back in just in time to see Simonson's Thor, Miller's Daredevil, Byrne's FF, as well as watching almost every other title be destroyed by Shooter's ego. Around the same time I started to pick up DC and was elated to see that the line was beginning to finally change for the better. By 1984, DC had become my publisher of preference again, and it has stayed that way since.

    The last time I bought a new "floppy" was in 1991, when financial considerations forced me away from the hobby. But in 2006 I rediscovered Collected Editions and have been back at it ever since; but only the trades and hardcovers, I still don't buy floppies.

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  2. Great piece! It's funny how we, as comic readers, change along with comics themselves. There are so many versions of this story. I dropped out in the early 70s. For me it was Romita leaving ASM, and big John Buscema and Sal leaving The Avengers. Also, with any such article, i find it helpful to know the age of the writer ( Unless I missed that here)

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  3. Reason #1 is the great inflation of the 1970s. Prices rose uniformly across the entire economy, comic books included. But did your income increase at the same pace as comic prices increased? If so, the real cost of your monthly purchases did not change.

    I, too, stopped buying comics in 1978. I recently sold my collection. The newest book in the lot was 1978 when I was a rising senior in high school.

    Here is a graph of the horrible inflation of the 1970s.

    https://www.inflation.eu/inflation-rates/united-states/historic-inflation/cpi-inflation-united-states.aspx

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    1. Pars, please go back and reread part one. I agree inflation was a factor and I addressed that. It took one hour of 1965 minimum wage to pay for a month of comics. The wage went up and it took 8 hours to buy all comics.
      Comics triple in price from 1969-1977, salaries did not go up that fast

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  4. Perhaps we read comics into young adulthood because we want to hang on to our childhoods - then we realise that all we need to do that is the old comics we already have. That's why I probably track down back issues and reprint books more often than I buy a new comic nowadays.

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  5. a fascinating article Barry, and one that really struck a chord in me, as i drifted away from mainstream comics around the same date.

    The Marvel comics of the 60s were notable for their congruity, their consistent high-quality, and were produced by a disciplined team all following the one guiding light.

    In the 70s, this unified vision fell apart, and everyone went off to do their own thing because….well, it was the 70s, man! The odd gem got published, by accident, but these beauties shone all the more brightly because of the vast oceans of dreck surrounding them.

    Many of the old master creators became marginalised as their styles fell out of fashion, or their powers dulled with age, or they were so overwhelmed by the relentless workload, their stuff became predictable and uninspired. No-one seemed to have the time or the willpower to take a step back from the overheated comic-producing hamster wheel and try to impose some sort of cohesive vision and authentic heart back into the process. It was like some mad Dr Seuss-like story where once upon a time the people had started making thingamajigs, but they got so busy making more and more thingamajigs, at a faster and faster rate, that no one could actually remember why they were making them to begin with.

    I stuck with Marvel til the late 70s, but in reality, it was over a few years earlier, and i was just hanging in there out of habit, a dead relationship that i didn’t want to admit was over. I guess i clung to a feeble hope that they would find their way back to their glory days? But i had to be honest, what i was thumbing through in 1978 was often pretty pedestrian art, story and characters, hackneyed dialogue, printed poorly without love and every second page a bloody ad!

    Magazines like Heavy Metal filled in the void for a couple more years, but even they started to lose my interest in time and so, I traded in my comics for music and girls, and that was that.

    Only recently, in my 50s, have i come back to the fold, and while i have very little interest in the new mainstream stuff, my love and adoration for the comics of my youth is as high as it ever was….perhaps even higher, as it’s served with a generous side dish of memories. To add to the fun, i have also become fascinated with comics from the Golden age, which i had zero interest in when i was a kid! So now, for me, the heyday of comics runs from the mid 30s through to the mid 70s

    One thing that has never left me though, in fact, it is imprinted on my dna, is the powerful creative lessons, imagery and wonder of those awesome Marvel comics of the Silver Age. Whenever i draw or write anything today, i still go back to those comics, in my memory, as a point of reference, if only to try and recreate a fraction of the excitement and thrillpower i felt as a kid reading those stories for the first time. In a way, maybe it was unrealistic to expect that special time to last forever...it wouldn’t be so special then, would it?

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  6. Interesting. 1977 was the year that i got into comics. I was 6 years old and began what would be a 26 year journey that ended when i got engaged and had 10000 comics to my name.

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  7. I started buying comics in the very late 70's... around '79 I'd say. What I bought off the spinner rack was generally Whitman Disney comics which was my introduction to Carl Barks (I just did not realize this until much later because the artists were not credited in those books). I loved the format, and how cheap of a form of entertainment they were. Sometimes I bought other comics like a Buck Rogers TV show tie in, but in general I steered clear of superheroes I just have not really liked them. Then I started in on "juvenile" horror; Gold Key Twilight Zone, Boris Karloff Tales of Horror etc. Then... for a while I just stopped. It may have been the cover price, it may have been the fact you could only tell stories so many ways under the onerous of the code (yes I know the ones I mentioned did not DISPLAY the code, but neither did they get very adventurous under those years). I really didn't start up collecting again to any serious degree until Gladstone comics came along in 1986. I fell in love... great art, great stories not only from classic artists of the past, but also introduced new artists to the fold, and classics from other countries. Plus they had really wonderful letter columns full of camaraderie between fans, sometimes I wanted to read the letter columns more than the comics. What really helped were for the time they were also CHEAP... 75 cents to start out, when they hit 95 cents they kept it at that price for as long as they could. I branched out from there into the explosion of independent comics that were happening; a bit more pricey but so much bang for your buck and a lot more freedom to tell stories. These were on the high end around $2.00. Then the big collapse of the independents happened, even ones that managed to stick around like NOW which went more mainstream, were affected. It was harder to find that package of quality and cheap price. After a while things started to bounce back, but the prices rose at a pretty fast and furious pace. When comics were starting to reach the $3.00 bracket I was hesitant to continue collecting, and the quality seemed to be suffering under the burden of the bizarre and growing collectors market for weird variations and gimmicks which took precedence over story and art. Once comics got past $3.00 that was pretty much the death knell for me... far too much money for far too little. I'd occasionally go to a comics shop (since that was really the only way to get the comics I liked anymore... grocery stores and the like pretty much stopped carrying them), and browse... maybe bring home one or two new comics.. but mostly buy older ones at discounts. And that is pretty close to where I am now. I've not a bought a new comic on the stand in at least 10 years.

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  8. I quit in 1970 due to your reason number one and I can even pare that down to just girls. If I only knew then what I know now! I still enjoy going back to the comics of those days (but not many others) and I'm very grateful for reprints. Thanks for another great Pearl of Comic Book Wisdom.

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  9. I started loosing interest when Romita left Amazing Spider-Man and Jack Kirby left Fantastic Four. I hung on for a while longer then stopped altogether. Started and stopped a few times since then. Last year stopped buying new comics altogether although I only bought a handful because of price and content. Now enjoy back issues and trades. Still have Daredevil # 16 which I bought off the rack as a kid that was one of my first Marvel comics. That is a great piece of my childhood.

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  10. Great article Barry.

    I too quit around this time for many of the same reasons you so deftly detail. I'd also add that I joined the Navy around this time and access was limited, but truth be told I was already halfway out by then anyway. By 1978 I was completely done with comics.

    After I got out of the service, settled down and married, I rediscovered comics at one of those "new-fangled" comic shops. This was around 1982 or 83. Stuck with it for the next decade or so, then quit again when the "age of Image" arrived. After that, got back in around 2000 or so, but just the occasional Vertigo or independent title. Left again, and probably for good, around 2010. Nothing appeals to me anymore, and I am clearly not their intended audience.

    It's back-issues and collected editions for me these days and I'm loving the hobby more than ever.

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  11. Interesting commentary, Barry. At my age, I still buy comics, but the current crop doesn't seem to have the same impact as those comics of the sixties and, yes, even some in the seventies. Of course, the price is high, too. I keep buying some new comics hoping that lightning will strike twice and I'll discover something that would impact me as much as some of those Marvel comics. And, even of the DC comics of the sixties, which I enjoyed as a science fiction fan. DC produced very light science fiction stories that I enjoyed because of the SF themes and of course the art. Well done, Barry.

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  12. Hi Barry,
    Interesting piece. Apologies for my ignorance, but does that mean you've read nothing published past 1977? You've missed out on a lot of good stuff it that is the case! Regards.
    Jeff MT

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    1. Jeff, I have reads a great deal since 1977, but mostly older material such as the EC comics that have been reprinted and many comic strips, including Prince Valiant and Flash Gordon. I have also read Crisis on Infinite Earths when friends recommended that to me.

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  13. 1977 had gems...Claremont/Cockrum/ Byrne titles, Shooter's Avengers, Tomb of Dracula and, best of all, Avengers Annual 7 by Starlin. I still enjoyed the Kirby comics (and enjoy them even more now). 1978 had a bit of a renaissance at DC, with Englehart, Rogers, Golden, Shade by Ditko and a brilliant issue of LSH by Starlin. 1979 was awful, and I was only kept interested by Claremont and Byrne, the Miconauts ( which, when stripped down, was Kirbyesque)and the arrival of Miller on Daredevil! By 1980 there were very few comics worth reading. Then all of a sudden, DC became interesting again and by 1983 was creatively the top company. The work of Miller, Moore and to a lesser extent Thomas, Wolfman, Englehart, Evanier, and the emergence of independents kept me coming back for more. I Became an enormous Alan Moore fan (from Warrior #1). His first Swamp Thing issues were absolutely amazing. Crisis killed it all off for me, not because of Crisis ( which was overly long anyway), but because of how badly DC handles the post Crisis world. They had little idea of what to do, except make every series darker for so called realism. So although I was there for and enjoyed titles like Batman Returns, Batman year 1, Watchmen, Hellblazer, Sandman and the coming of Vertigo, the shine was off. I enjoyed very few Marvels apart from Simonson's Thor. Even Byrne's FF did not do it for me, beyond #250. The end came early '93 when I became totally fed up with the DeFalco/Ryan FF, the FF being the one title that I had collected through thick and thin. I have dipped back in from time to time, to enjoy some of Gaiman's work, Moore America's Best line, and some of Hickman's FF. I kept in touch discovering the Tomorrows publications, re-read all my Kirby's on Jack's passing, and today am content with savouring the brilliance of golden, bronze and silver age comics.
    Barry, your musings are always insightful. I wish you had time to write more of them!

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