In the Limelight

By Charles S. Novinskie

What became known in Stan Lee-speak as “The Marvel Age” began in the 1960s with the introduction of the Fantastic Four—superheroes with problems—introduced by Lee and Jack Kirby. But did you know that there was a second Marvel Age?

April 1983 saw the release of Marvel Age magazine, a fanzine for Marvel fans, written by fans that later became bona fide professionals. But you won’t find the book listed in The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide. In fact, you won’t find it listed on anyone’s Top 100 Must Read Comics list.

The reality is that the title ran 140 issues—from April 1983 to 1994, longer than most comic book titles. For anyone that grew up during that time period you will surely have fond memories of a wonderfully produced fanzine that wasn’t afraid to entertain, laugh at itself, and provide behind-the-scenes info that made Marvel a cool place to want to work. A precursor to today’s Marvel Previews, without the slick paper and full-page ads teasing things to come, this magazine was full of wacky, zany stuff, pre-production artwork, and editors’ notes.

Printed on the familiar pulp paper of the day, the first issue ran 16 pages, not counting covers, and was a real bargain for 25 cents. The first issue sported a flashy cover of Marvel’s newest book, Crystar, complete with a Walt Simonson original conceptual cover (the final cover of Crystar #1 was done by talented Bob Larkin). The feature article on Crystar had character sketches by John Romita Jr., as well as interior pencils and ink samples by Bret Blevins and Vinnie Colletta.

The contents had a variety of features, including a Newswatch section featuring tidbits on upcoming projects and smatterings of behind the scenes doings of Marvel’s staff and creators. Ample editorial notes from staff filled in “Marvel Zombies” (a term applied to anyone who purchased all Marvel Comics, regardless of content) wanting to know what was next on their buying list (like Peter Sanderson promoting Marvel’s newest project—The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe).

Subsequent issues featured an array of original covers by top drawer artists, many of whom were interviewed ahead of an upcoming special project. Rarely-interviewed John Byrne was interviewed in issue #2, promoting his Canadian–based superhero team Alpha Flight. Issue #4 kicked off another staple of Marvel Age Magazine, the letters page with submissions from around the world.

Changes began to appear with issue #7 when Jim Salicrup took over as Editor and Design Director. The page count doubled to 32 pages, all still priced at two bits. In his editorial, Salicrup explained how he ended up as an intern at Marvel at age 14 while announcing a new Talent Department that would feature art from new faces in upcoming issues. Issue #8 featured an 11-page double interview with Stan Lee and Jim Shooter (Editor in Chief at the time), conducted by then Assistant Direct Sales Manager, Peter David (long before anyone knew he could write).

After a year of publication, Marvel Age appeared to be picking up steam. A book that on the surface appeared to be nothing more than a publication prompting readers to pay money for Marvel hype, the book became the fans’ mouthpiece for expressing their thoughts; letter’s pages ran three pages an issue and fans, pros, and wannabe-pros were sending in letters. Marvel had successfully proven that the big guys could pull off something akin to a fanzine—a fan based publication. Issue #13 had an incredible feature--totally unexpected--and in-depth (seven pages) on “How to Color Comics the Marvel Way.” The article, outdated by today’s computer-rendered coloring techniques, provided a look at the work that went into the early days of coloring comics. The article even profiled the seven colorists on staff at Marvel. This issue also featured the start of a semi-regular feature, “Marvel Age,” a look back at the history of Marvel starting with the year 1961.

Paper price increases saw Marvel Age #15 increase in price by 10 cents. The increase stuck for 26 issues with the dreaded “Only 50 cents” banner showing up on issue #41. Issue #22 featured a touching tribute to Sol Brodsky, one of Marvel’s early pioneers who was a true unsung hero that worked mostly in production and eventually as VP of Operations. Sol was also a talented artist and writer before joining Marvel. A 17-page tribute and cover portrait drawn by John Romita Sr. made this a very touching and special issue.

Issue #26 saw the introduction of the back cover calendar—an illustrated, colorful look at industry birthdays, shameless plugs, and wacky sight gags. The calendar became a popular, regular feature along with the humorous comic strips of Fred Hembeck, future writer/artist on Fred Hembeck Destroys the Marvel Universe. In typical fanzine fashion, issue #35 featured “A Day in the Life of Marvel Comics!,” a 20-page opus complete with an illustrated cover featuring office staff and an in-depth timeline of a typical day at Marvel. Photos of rarely-seen staff made this issue a treat for fans wanting to learn more about the faces behind their favorite comics.

“Stan’s Soapbox” returned in Marvel Age #41 after quite a hiatus—complete with that infamous yellow box warning us of some big, exciting news. The piece was followed up by The Stan Lee Story, a four page look back written by none other than talented comic scribe, Kurt Busiek. Issue #50 arrived with the exclusive story of the wedding of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson and we all hit the jackpot with a cut-out Mary Jane paper doll featuring several outfits, including the wedding dress designed by real-life fashion designer, Will Smith.

After its meager beginning back in 1983, Marvel Age Magazine had blossomed into a full-fledged success that had crossed the boundary between slick Marvel book and fanzine. The editorial of issue #61 featured a letter from George Doro of Denver, Colorado, debating the term “Marvel Zombie” with Jim in his Salicrup’s Section editorial. Salicrup continued his pattern of engaging fans in his editorials, making them part of the experience. Some of those fans went on to work professionally in the business—even getting the chance to work with Jim. (I know, I was one of them.) The issue also focused on graphic novels which were an up and coming commodity back then. The letters pages, still running three full pages, sometimes longer, also involved fans by using a different, fan-submitted title each and every issue. One of my favorites, “Attack of the Killer Fan Mail,” complete with fan art, ran in issue #74. Issue #75 (June 1989), saw the addition of “Mark’s Remarks,” a popular, thought-provoking column written by one of Marvel’s more outgoing and fan-oriented editors and writer, Mark Gruenwald. Mark always had a way of connecting with the fans and often featured their well thought out letters that he received. The column was carried over from the feature which ran in letters pages of books that he edited.

Issue #80 ushered in the biggest price increase yet—a 25 cent increase—to 75 cents, even though Salicrup had announced an increase to $1.00 several issues later. Of course the temporary increase only lasted six issues and went to the aforementioned $1.00 starting with issue #86. Every Marvel fan out there worth his weight in adamantium knows about the coveted “No-Prize,” but Salicrup went into great detail to explain how it was awarded and that it was an envelope sent out, announcing that the recipient had received a no-prize; which meant exactly that--there was no-prize (or anything else) in the envelope. Mystery solved!

It was late 1989 when the CBG (Comics Buyer’s Guide) Fan Awards selected Marvel Age Magazine as the Winner as Favorite Publication About Comics. It was January of 1990 when Marvel Age Magazine went from Direct Sales Only to also being available on newsstand everywhere (the newsstand distribution was dropped a few months later). The December 1990 issue (#85), featured the long-running, holiday candy cane Marvel logo complete with Sergio Aragones’ Groo cover. I don’t know what the running gag was in the Marvel office, but Groo sure seemed to show up a lot on the December covers.

Always ahead of his time, cartoonist Fred Hembeck turned in a visually interesting center spread featuring The Li’l Avengers, taking advantage of issue #93 Avengers-themed emphasis.  His rendition of Avengers as kids is as timeless and classic as today’s Skottie Young’s current baby cover variants. (Interesting note, Hembeck has Brother Voodoo stating that his Li’l Avengers had as much chance of getting by the Marvel brass as he did as making the lineup of the grownup Avengers, hmmmm.) This issue also saw the cover blurb change from The Official Marvel Fan Magazine to Official Marvel Zombie Magazine.

Issue #96, the X-Mas issue, once again had the same cover motif with Groo, everyone’s favorite barbarian, making yet another appearance. Salicrup’s Section takes some time to point out that anyone submitting to Marvel Age’s new Talent Department should check out one of his favorite fanzines—the Marvel Zombie Society-APA (Amateur Press Association).

Not many comics make it to the lofty triple digit list, but Marvel Age did just that in May of 1991. In the 100th issue Mark Gruenwald delivered an epic 100 “Mark’s Remarks,” sharing 100 short observations about life, comics, and the universe. Probably one of the most reveling articles written by a Marvel editor without being an interview. Over in the New Talent Department we had an unknown penciler, Leonard Kirk, showing off his skills with a two-page Ghost Rider story. Marvel’s Managing Art Director at the time, Steve Geiger, had this to say about Leonard’s pencils, “I think Leonard will do just fine, and I wish him the best of luck.” (Leonard Kirk broke into comics drawing Malibu Comics Dinosaurs For Hire series and continues to work on many high profile comics for DC and Marvel Comics).

The following issue, #101 was special for me as it contained my second piece of writing for Marvel (the first being an Alien Legion piece in Marvel Age #96). More importantly, it introduced me to Carol Kalish. Carol was the first editor of Marvel Age Magazine and a brilliant sales and marketing person. The article, announcing the Wild Agents of Marvel, was their newest fan club, following in the footsteps of the Merry Marvel Marching Society, Marvelmania, and FOOM. Sadly, Carol passed away at a way-too-young age at the peak of her creativity. I learned a lot from her and appreciated getting to know her, even if it was just via phone conversations.

After editing 99 issue of Marvel Age, Salicrup moved on, handing the reigns over to Renee Witterstaetter effective with issue #105. (Note: Salicrup ended up leaving Marvel to become Editor in Chief of a successful line of comics, including The X-Files, Jurassic Park, and Xena Warrior Princess for the Topps Company. Topps Comics, a wholly owned subsidiary of The Topps Company, went on to become Best New Publisher and Best Small Publisher of the Year as reported by Diamond Comics Distributors).

Another semi-regular feature added in later issues was a wonderful column written by Andy Mangels; “Andy Mangels’ Reel Marvel.” The column featured a look back at Marvel and their rich history of television and movie adaptations, including cartoon episodes. In-depth and informative, one can only image how much space would be needed to cover all of today’s theatrical productions. This issue (#109) also saw the cover banner change from “Official Marvel Zombie Magazine” to “World’s Best-Selling Fan Magazine.” According to published Statement of Ownership reports, the fanzine/magazine was selling in the range of 60,000 copies monthly. Pretty respectable numbers.

The John Romita Sr. interview issue of Marvel Age #111 was notable for a number of reasons, first and foremost, an interview with one of the true statesmen of comics, John Romita. The cover, a classic, shows a relaxed, very pleased with himself Romita, surrounded by all of the wonderful women he’s drawn over the years—including, of course, Mary Jane and Gwen. A classic Romita cover. The issue also contained a behind the scenes look at “Romita’s Raiders,” a group of artists that worked diligently to handle corrections and keep production on track. The book also featured one of Hembeck’s best, his stylized rendition and salute to the art of John Romita.

After eight issues, Renee Witterstaetter passed the editorial reigns to Steve Saffel. (Renee also went on to become an editor for Topps Comics). After 114 issues, the Marvel Age logo was revamped to a new, modernized look, designed to give the magazine a fresh look and a new start. The 120th issue of Marvel Age Magazine celebrated ten years of publication with Editor Steve Saffel dedicating the issue to Carol Kalish and Peter David. The issue contained a nice look back at the ten year history of the magazine as well as a look forward at future projects.

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, as did Marvel Age, with issue #140 (September 1994), which featured a painted cover by the Greg and Tim Hildebrandt, featuring Spider-Man 2099. Marvel Age also ran four annuals from 1985-1988. Highlights included 48-page issues with original comic content. Annual #1 (1985), featured an original tale featuring the Beyonder and just about everyone in the Marvel Universe. Written by Jim Shooter and Kurt Busiek with art by James Fry and Keith Williams, the yarn was entertaining and well-drawn. A comic worthy of annual status. The 1987 Annual (#3) featured The Fred Hembeck Show, a Tonight Show parody written and drawn by Hembeck in which he interviewed just about everyone that existed in the Marvel Universe at the time. Marvel also produced two preview issues in 1990 (48 pages), and a 1992 Marvel Age Preview that ran 64 pages.

It really doesn’t matter whether you call it a magazine, comic book, or fanzine—the bottom line is that Marvel Age will be remembered fondly not only by readers, but also by the plethora of creators, fans, and sales and marketing people that were fortunate enough to work on the publication. At the very least, it will go down as an experiment in the genre of fanzine and sales tools/marketing from a major publisher. But, thankfully for readers, it will be mostly remembered as a wonderful run that was fun to read, visually exciting, and an exciting, behind-the-scenes look at Marvel that made fans feel what it was like to actually work for Marvel Comics.

This article appeared previously in slightly different form in Comic Book Marketplace Yearbook.