The first Monday of every month, this column looks back at three historical events from the comic industry that are connected to that month. For August 2019, we examine the first comic from Marvel, Carol Kalish, and the return of variant covers.
August 31, 1939
Martin Goodman had been in the publishing business since 1929, and he had been a pulp magazine publisher since 1933. That might have been all Goodman would ever do, if it weren’t for salesman Frank Torpe. Torpe was a salesman for Funnies Inc, one of several start-up companies that offered ready-made comic books to publishers wanting to cash in on the new trend. Goodman thought is sounded like a fine idea and bought material from them for “Marvel Comics” #1.
Goodman requested the first issue contain comic versions of his pulp characters The Masked Rider (a western) and Ka-Zar (a jungle adventure). When he realized he had lost the rights to the Masked Rider, he added an a and got The Masked Raider. The remaining features were left to the discretion of Lloyd Jacquet, the man in charge at Funnies Inc, who filled pages with a detective story (The Angel), jokes, and two new superheroes (the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner).
The issue was cover dated October 1939 and was distributed to newsstands on Thursday, August 31. It had a print run of 80,000 and sold out. Sell-through of 100% made Goodman’s eyes light up, and he ran a second printing of 800,000 with a November 1939 cover date pasted over the previous one. Readers who bought a copy were treated to content that was above average for the era.
Despite the good sales, Goodman decided to rename the series “Marvel Mystery Comics” starting with issue two. The name was changed because Goodman hoped to piggyback on the heavy advertising for Marvel Mystery Oil, a popular fuel additive for cars.
August 1, 1987
In early 1982, Carol Kalish and her long-time partner Robert Howell started a fanzine called “Fandom’s Forum: LOC”. It was meant to be a centralized way for readers to express their ideas, opinions, and criticism of the industry. All content was submitted on spec and the focus and quality changed rapidly between issues. Some articles were nothing more than praise for a favorite series, others were attempts to tackle big ideas like the treatment of female characters in comics. Kalish had to leave LOC shortly after founding it, however, because she started a job at Marvel on March 1, 1982. She was hired to be the assistant to the Direct Sales Manager, Mike Freidrichs. Freidrichs knew he was leaving the position, and he planned from the start to train her as his successor.
She was promoted to VP of Direct Sales on August 1, 1987. This role allowed her to initiate important projects, the most frequently cited being the cash register program. During visits to comic shops, she noticed how few of them had functioning cash registers, and how many just had a cash box and a calculator. She shopped around to find a good wholesale deal on registers, then convinced Marvel to buy and resell them to comic shops at (or near) cost. She also hired Peter David as her assistant, opening the door for his writing career in later years. When she died unexpectedly on September 5, 1991, she was making plans to start her own publishing firm within 6 months.
Kalish was an automatic inductee into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame in 2018.
August 25, 2004
Variant covers became something collectors sought in the early 1990s, but their popularity faded after the speculators left in 1993 and Marvel’s bankruptcy in 1996. Many fans and retailers saw them (along with enhanced covers) as a evidence of an unhealthy market. They became a rarity, popping up every now and then, like 1997’s “The Darkness” #11 with eleven covers or the white “Ultimate Spider-Man” #1 in 2000. Those attracted interest as novelties, but didn’t inspire much imitation.
Then, in August 2004, Marvel resurrected Colossus in “Astonishing X-Men” #4. He’d been dead for a few years, and his return had been kept a complete secret right up to release day. When retailers unpacked their boxes from Diamond, they found a surprise: the issue came with an unannounced 1:6 variant featuring Colossus. Fans were excited by the story and were willing to pay extra for the cover celebrating it. Retailers sold out, and Marvel took the hint. When “New Avengers” debuted four months later, it came with an advertised incentive program. You can read more about the effects of “Astonishing X-Men” here, but long story short, it woke the whole industry to a new way of generating interest and sales.