A post from my dearly departed Marvel blog, part of a sequence where I talked about the history of cover philosophy at Marvel.
Continuing our sequence on the history of covers and cover theory (Marvel covers primarily, because I’m limited in terms of what non-Marvel examples I can post here.)
Around 1957, Timely-Atlas-Marvel went through a massive implosion, due to some bad business decisions. The entire comics division (Martin Goodman published a wide line of magazine titles, of which his comics line was a small and relatively unimportant adjunct) was shut down for at least a few weeks, and then came back under much more restrictive terms. Rather than putting out sixty or seventy titles a month, under its new distribution terms, Timely-Marvel was limited to a mere eight titles a month. So in order to launch a new book, Goodman needed to cancel an existing title. In order to maximize his line, Martin decided to publish 16 bi-monthlies.
By this point, a certain cover style kind of worked itself out. The Marvel books of this era didn’t carry any company name or trade dress, so it was really only by these unifying elements that anybody would realize that all the books came from the same office. (Different titles were also copyrighted to different shell companies in an attempt to get around tax laws and the like—FANTASTIC FOUR #1 was published by Canam Publishers Sales Corp.) The focus of most of the line was on “Big Monsters,” inspired by the “Godzilla” movies that had begun to play in American theaters. The typical cover touted the creature of the issue, with big, pulpy display lettering showcasing his name, anxious blurbs and balloons touting the creature’s invincibility and possibly outlining his state of mind towards humanity (“Run, puny humans! Nothing can stop Klagg!”) There was a particular flavor to the lettering, with thick outlines around the balloon shapes, and a certain style to the way the bursts were done. Each cover was story-focused to some degree, but they also all tended to seem the same—just the name of the monster and a few of the particulars changed issue after issue, month after month.
The earliest Marvel super hero comics tended to follow this format, and many of them don’t really even seem like the covers to super hero comics at all. Looking at FANTASTIC FOUR #1 at the left, today we realize that it’s the first of the actual Marvel super hero comics. But back in 1961, when it might have shared rack space with a book like that issue of TALES OF SUSPENSE, it more readily seemed like a part of the “Big Monster” line. It’s only the copy box that really tells you any different, that and the defiant balloons from the FF themselves (as opposed to the sort of defeatist talk espoused by the usual bystanders on the Big Monster covers.)
Looking at later issues, this trend continued for awhile. By FF #7, the team had costumes, but this cover still looks like more of a fantasy-adventure magazine than a super hero book—while the heroes are depicted, it’s done in a way to kind of minimize their impact. Some theorize that this was done because the Marvel books were then being distributed by an outfit owned by DC Comics, whose officers tended to guard the turf of Superman and company. This was a way of kind of flying under the radar, at least until such point as the books were established. Even the cover of FF #13, a full year-and-a-half later downplays the super hero elements. Again, it looks like a fantasy/science fiction comic book, with explorers in jumpsuits on the moon, and the mysterious, threatening transparent hand. The copy, though, has begun to streamline, as Stan started to find the voice of the Marvel style and the persona that would define both him and the books going forward.
One month after this, the Marvel Comics Group would get a name, and its first trade dress.