The history of Marvel UK in the 1970s
The Complete Fantastic Four
In 1972 American comic giant Marvel launched a UK subsidiary to tap into Britain’s lucrative weekly comic book market. The success of their first title, The Mighty World of Marvel, gave them a foothold in the UK and over the next five years Marvel UK consolidated their position by launching another ten weekly titles, featuring reprinted stories starring some of their most popular characters, including Spider-Man, The Avengers, Dracula and The Hulk. These comics successfully mimicked the tried and tested formula of their British counterparts: cheaply priced (and printed) black and white comics featuring a selection of different stories, or strips, as well as competitions, puzzles and Letters pages. It quickly became apparent that there was a place for Marvel in the British market and between 1972 and 1977 the US giant hit an almost unbroken run of successful titles.
It was only fitting then that Marvel’s flagship comic from the US, The Fantastic Four, should be present at the birth of Marvel UK, and the title was integral to the success of The Mighty World of Marvel (MWOM). The superhero team had revived Marvel’s fortunes in 1961 and they were a firm favourite with the fans, acquiring the unashamedly grandiose title of The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine! The Fantastic Four strip ran in MWOM for an almost unbroken run of 187 issues before moving to The Titans in 1976. From there the strip migrated to the newly launched Captain Britain Weekly, and when that title was folded into Super Spider-Man and Captain Britain in July 1977 the FF tagged along. By Autumn of 1977 the time seemed right for the team to star in their own weekly title and The Complete Fantastic Four was launched on 28th September 1977.
Promising ‘A Book-Length Thriller Every Week’ for only 10p, the comic ran to 34 black and white pages (with added zip-a-tone effects) plus colour outer covers, and reprinted an entire issue of The Fantastic Four with a shorter feature as back-up. During its run the weekly title reprinted issues #133 (originally published April 1973) to #170 (May 1976) of it’s US counterpart with only one exception – issue #154 (January 1975) was skipped as the story was a filler comprised mainly of a reprint from Strange Tales issue #127 (December 1964). The back-up feature reprinted stories from The Fantastic Four issue #1 (November 1961) onwards in 8-11 page segments, and these were labelled first as ‘A Mighty Marvel Blast from the Past’ and then as ‘A Fantastic Four Collectors’ Classic’. Filling out the rest of the pages were a rotating roster of semi-regular features: pin-ups; a Letters page; an announcement page (in the style of Marvel’s Bullpen Bulletins); puzzle pages; reprints of old covers; adverts for other comics (predominantly Marvel’s new range of Star Wars publications); ‘coming next issue’ announcements and even the occasional paid advert.
The first issue also featured a full-page Personal Message from Marvel grandee Stan Lee, who gushed about the new comic as well as promoting other titles in Marvel UK’s stable. Lee’s welcome letter was a fixture for all Marvel UK launches and, unlike the obviously faked welcome from Savage Sword of Conan, this letter actually appears to have been written by The Man himself (or by someone doing a very good impersonation).
It was customary for newly launched British comics to come with a free gift to attract the attention of new readers and The Complete Fantastic Four was no exception. The first two issues shipped with model kits of a Boeing 747 (with issue #1) and a Boeing Clipper (issue #2). Both models were small (about two inches in length), unpainted and fairly inspired as free gifts go. It’s no surprise that both unanimously failed to impress the readers, who used the Letters page to complain of their poor quality and unsuitability as gifts for a superhero comic.
For the most part the covers to The Complete Fantastic Four reprinted those from their US counterpart, with modifications made to incorporate the comic’s title banner, and occasionally some minor tweaks were made to the colours. The only exceptions were issues #1, #2, #9 , #26 and #35 which featured new covers that, although not signed, appear to be the work of series regulars Rich Buckler (pencils) and Joe Sinnott (inks).
The format of the comic – a 19 page reprint with a shorter back-up feature – continued until changes to the US title forced adjustments to the UK edition. Between 1973 and 1975 the US version of The Fantastic Four featured 19 pages of story content. With issue #162 (September 1975) that fell to 18 pages and Marvel UK needed to fill that extra page in their weekly title. They took advantage of this forced change and with issue #32 (3 May 1978) a third strip was added to the title’s roster: The Invaders. Clearly hoping to cash-in on the tremendous popularity of British war comics at that time this new strip featured the exploits of the WWII super-team led by Captain America, with the six page strip reprinting stories originally published in The Invaders issue #14 (March 1977) onwards. It’s not known what regular readers thought of the inclusion of a non-FF story in a comic labelled ‘The Complete Fantastic Four’ because five weeks later they suddenly found themselves without an FF comic.
After 37 issues The Complete Fantastic Four was suddenly cancelled, the last issue being dated 7th June 1978. Typically of Marvel UK at that time the axe fell quickly and with very little fanfare. An notice printed on the back cover informed readers that both The Fantastic Four and The Invaders would be moving to The Mighty World of Marvel with issue #298 (14 June 1978). The Fantastic Four would see out the remainder of the Seventies in MWOM before being bounced around Marvel UK’s other titles, eventually earning their own title again in 1982. Sadly this resurgence in the team’s fortunes was all too brief and that title, simply titled Fantastic Four, faltered after only 29 issues.
But why did The Complete Fantastic Four fail after only 37 issues? The FF were perennial favourites with fans in both the US and the UK, and Marvel UK had in the past capitalised on that popularity by moving the strip over to its new launches in an attempt to attract those readers. I think there are many reasons for the title’s failure. Firstly the British economy was in a down-turn during the mid to late Seventies and many publishers struggled, not just Marvel. Secondly Marvel had flooded the market with comics, with five weekly titles – MWOM, Super Spider-Man, Rampage, Star Wars Weekly and The Complete Fantastic Four – available at that time. Four of those comics were superhero titles so in effect Marvel UK were competing with themselves. (DC Comics, Marvel’s only real competition in the US, made little or no effort to infiltrate the British market in the 1970s). And the decision to reprint stories from the early days of The Fantastic Four probably didn’t help; those stories had already seen print in MWOM and loyal readers must have felt cheated when those same stories reappeared – I certainly did when I read both titles as a kid.
Another reason may have been the nature of British comics themselves. Weekly British comics were, on the whole, anthology titles with strips running to 2-6 pages in length. UK readers were used to reading half a dozen strips in each comic, not two lengthy stories like those that appeared in The Complete Fantastic Four. And lastly, by the late Seventies US editions of Marvel titles were becoming more readily available in UK newsagents, giving readers the opportunity to read their favourite comics first hand. Why read black and white reprints from earlier in the decade (or even the decade before) when you could read the originals in colour only a month or so after they were published.
Whatever the reasons for the title’s ultimate failure it seems that, although British readers held The Fantastic Four in high esteem, they weren’t quite ready for undiluted instalments of The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine! – not on a weekly basis anyway.