The history of Marvel UK in the 1970s
Foreword: Power Comics
In 1972 Marvel Comics created a UK division to oversee the publication of reprints of its highly successful American titles. As there was no reliable distribution network in place in the UK copies of original Marvel comics were notoriously difficult to find, so the company believed that setting their own UK based subsidiary to oversee distribution was the best way to go.
However, before 1972 the only way British comic book fans could read Marvel comics was to troll markets for second hand copies or read them via Odhams Press’ Power Comics imprint (some Marvel stories were available through the Alan Class Comics reprint series and I’ve discussed them here).* Encompassing five titles – Wham!, Smash!, Fantastic, Terrific and Pow! – Odhams’ weekly comics were published for only a short period (1966-69), but they provided welcome exposure of Marvel Comics to UK fans. .
Wham! And Smash! were originally humour comics launched to capitalise on the success of publishing rival DC Thomson’s Beano and The Dandy and featured humour strips from such comic’s mainstays as Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid. Then in 1966 a licensing deal with Marvel saw superhero stories infiltrating these two weekly titles. Emboldened by the success of this formula Odhams launched Fantastic and Terrfic the following year, with both titles featuring a more compact look more in keeping with their American counterparts and reprinting mainly Marvel stories without the humour strips. Pow! was also added the the roster in 1967 and all five titles would be published under Odhams’ Power Comics imprint.
Unfortunately Odhams ran into financial problems in 1968 and all five titles were gradually merged into Smash!, which was transferred to Odhams owner IPC Magazines, who continued to publish the title but discontinued the Marvel reprints shortly after.
Launched on 20th June 1964 this comic most closely resembled the Beano for it’s first two years, and like the other titles under the Power Comics imprint it was cheaply printed on newspaper stock in black and white with colour covers. In 1966 Odhams signed a licensing agreement with Marvel and 3-6 page reprints of The Fantastic Four began to appear. All the titles in the Power Comics imprint tried to emulate the chatty, fan-friendly style than Stan Lee had utilised to great success in the American versions – ‘News from the floor at 64’ (the company’s offices were located at 64 Long Acre in London’s West End) informed readers about upcoming events and included light-hearted biographies of the staff, such as ‘Merry’ Margaret Smith (who made the tea) and office boy ‘Peerless’ Paul Ailey. The titles also encourage readers to write in and replies to printed letters kept up the informal chatter. However, unlike Marvel, Odhams did not credit the original creative teams at Marvel and removed the credit boxes from opening splash pages of the reprints. High production costs and falling sales forced Wham! to merge with Pow! after issue 187 (13th January 1968).
Launched on 5th February 1966 this title also only featured humour strips until it too was brought under the Power Comics imprint and began reprinting Marvel stories in the summer of 1966. Marvel reprints included The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, The Avengers and Daredevil in 3-4 page stories. Like Wham! it too cultivated a friendly relationship with it’s readers, offering gifts – such as a Hulk sweatshirt – to reader’s who letters were published and, like Wham!, it also did not credit the original creative teams from Marvel. With issue 137 (14th September 1968) it merged with Pow! and with issue 144 (2nd November 1968) it absorbed Fantastic to become the cumbersomely titled ‘Smash! and Pow! incorporating Fantastic’ comic. This new title continued to reprint Marvel stories until issue 162 in early 1969.
Launched almost solely as a vehicle for Marvel reprints (with no humour strips) on 18 February 1967, Fantastic most resembles the American comics to was trying to emulate. It was printed at a smaller size than Wham! and Pow! (200mm x 285mm, slightly bigger than a US comic) but differed from it’s American counterpart by only using full colour on the front and back covers, the rest of the magazine being printed in black and white. Some non-Marvel stories were featured, such as The Missing Link and Johnny Future, but the majority of the comic focused on Marvel reprints. Unlike Wham! and Smash! the Marvel stories were much longer, typically 7-14 pages long, with many stories reprinted in their entirety – however, when longer stories were featured they were split over two issues requiring crude cut and paste jobs to create new splash pages. Marvel reprints in Fantastic featured The Mighty Thor, The X-Men and Iron Man as well as some short stories from Tales of Suspense. With issue 52 the title merged with Terrific and incorporated The Avengers and Dr Strange from that title while dropping Iron Man. After issue 89 (26 October 1968) Fantastic and Terrific were merged with Smash!.
The first issue was dated 15 April 1967, six weeks after the launch of Fantastic, and like it’s sister publication it also tried to copy the smaller, more compact, American comics and was also printed in black and white with colour covers. The Marvel stories reprinted during it’s short publication history were Prince Namor The Sub-Mariner, The Avengers, Dr Strange from Strange Tales and Giant-Man from Tales to Astonish. After issue 43 (3 February 1968) the title was folded into Fantastic to create Fantastic and Terrific comic.
The last of the Power comics to see print, the first issue of Pow! was dated 21st January 1967. It featured 3-4 page reprints of Spider-Man and Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD as well as single page humour strips similar to Wham! and Smash! By mid-1968 the Nick Fury reprint had been replaced by the Fantastic Four. With issue 86 it was merged with Smash!
I must confess that, until recently, I was largely unaware of Power Comic’s Marvel reprints being far more familiar with Marvel UK’s Mighty World of Marvel and Spider-Man Weekly. Wham!, Smash! and Pow are typical of British weekly comics – cheap, cheerful and ultimately very disposable. However Fantastic and Terrific still retain their appeal. The banner logo on Fantastic merits attention – it’s about as ‘Sixties’ as you can get. And the editors attempt to mimic Stan Lee’s style of banter is amusing. There is a small collectors market for these titles, probably due to their rarity: copies of Fantastic, Terrific are changing hands on eBay for around a £5 while copies of Wham! are almost double that. There’s nothing contained in those comics that you can’t find in Marvel’s Essential collections, but the Power Comics do have a certain charm that you don’t get with those large reprint books.
* Two other British companies briefly published Marvel stories in the early Sixties: Thorpe and Porter acted as a distributer for some early silver age Marvel titles before the firm was purchased by DC Comics in 1964 and L. Miller and Son, Ltd briefly published some early Atlas (pre-Marvel) horror and suspense stories before they ceased trading in 1966.