Origins of Marvel Comics (1974) and the birth of the trade paperback

Origins of Marvel Comics 1974

And Marvel said, Let there be The Fantastic Four.
And there was The Fantastic Four.
And Marvel saw The Fantastic Four. And it was good.
Stan Lee, from his introduction

Origins of Marvel Comics by Stan Lee

Browse through any comic shop (if you can find one) and you’ll doubtless notice the proliferation of reprint collections, also commonly known as trade paperbacks. With editions numbering well into the thousands trade paperbacks, or trades, have become an important part of the comic book industry offering readers the chance to read and collect their favourite comic book stories reprinted in tidy, book-shelf friendly volumes. They are so popular that many high street bookshops now stock them – although they tend to be erroneously labelled as graphic novels – helping to introduce the medium to readers who wouldn’t normally frequent comic book shops.

Reprinting comics in dedicated collections has become an important revenue stream for publishers – according to Diamond Comic Distributors, the company that handles all of the comic book distribution in the US, the trade paperback market for 2012 accounted for almost $85m with that number expected to rise this year. That’s a serious chunk of change so competing publishers ensure that readers have several different types of collected editions to choose from. The most popular trades are soft covered but all the major publishers offer a choice of hardcover editions, no doubt hoping to appeal to the more discerning reader (and their wallet). Marvel Masterworks is a long-running hardcover series that specialises in reprinting older, classic, stories while the company’s Premiere Editions feature more contemporary stories in collections that boast foil printing and spot varnish on the slip covers. Marvel also publish oversized editions (285mm x 195mm) as well as their top-of-the-line Omnibus collections, many of which run to over a whopping 1,000 pages of reprinted material. DC also offer readers a choice of hardcover collections with their Deluxe and Absolute Editions, the latter of which comes in at a generous 320mm x 220mm and sits in a sturdy slip case. Other publishers have also acknowledged the value of collected editions and also offer a choice of trades.

Today the trade paperback is such a fixture in the comic book market that nearly all stories are written in five or six issue arcs so they can be collected more readily, and the gap between the final issue of an arc seeing print as a comic book and then being collected in a trade has shrunk – for example, the first collected edition of writer Brian K. Vaughan’s ongoing space opera Saga was released only two months after the first six issue arc was completed.

The back cover of Origins of Marvel Comics
The back cover of Origins of Marvel Comics

Despite their proliferation today, in the early ’70s trades were unheard of. Back then if a reader wanted to read a back issue of a comic they had to trawl through second hand shops to find an old copy or borrow one from a friend. It was to fill this gap in the market (and, I suspect, a desire to add legitimacy to a medium long thought of as aimed at kids) that led to the publication in September 1974 of Origins of Marvel Comics by Fireside Books, an imprint of eminent New York publisher Simon & Schuster, a book that is now widely considered to be the first trade paperback. (That’s not to say that it was the very first book to feature reprinted material, that accolade probably belongs to Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes. Published in 1965 Feiffer’s collection of essays was an early attempt to seriously analyse the appeal of comics and although the book featured full length reprints of stories, they were included to illustrate the text whereas Origins of Marvel Comics was aimed squarely at existing and potential comic book readers).

It’s not certain who initially conceived the idea of repackaging older material in book format, but legend has it that Stan Lee came up with the idea first. However Mark Evanier, in his afterword to the first Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus, claims Kirby first touted the idea of collected comic books several years earlier. We’ll probably never know for sure who had the idea first and it probably doesn’t matter. What I find more perplexing is why it took so long to come up with the idea in the first place. Considering that the comic book industry was originally built on reprints – those very first comics from the mid-1930’s featured repackaged strips from Sunday newspapers – I can’t help but wonder why it took the industry almost fifty years to create reprint collections.

The title page

With the importance of the trade paperback in mind I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at the first one. Origins of Marvel Comics runs to 260 pages and is printed in full colour and features a painted cover by Marvel stalwart John Romita. Inside are reprinted origin stories for five Marvel mainstays: The Fantastic Four; The Hulk; Spider-Man; Thor and Dr Strange. Each chapter features two reprinted stories, the character’s origin story and a more modern tale (Dr Strange is the only exception as a third tale was included due to the short page count of his stories). The book reprinted stories from The Fantastic Four issues #1 (cover dated November 1961) and #55 (October 1966), The Hulk issues #1 (May 1962) and #118 (August 1969), Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962) and The Amazing Spider-Man #72 (May 1969), Journey Into Mystery #83 (August 1962) and Thor #143 (August 1967), Strange Tales #115 (December 1963), Strange Tales #110 (July 1963) and Strange Tales #155 (April 1967).

Origins of Marvel Comics page 9
Stans lee’s Introduction

All five chapters also feature lengthy introductions by Stan Lee and I suspect they were included to give the book an air of legitimacy, to make it feel like a proper book. These introductions are entertaining and informative and he goes into lengthy detail concerning the genesis of each of the characters, the thought process that went into creating the stories and why certain artists were approached to draw them. (I’m not going to get drawn into the ‘who did what at Marvel’ discussion that seems to have sprung up over the last 20 years concerning Lee’s involvement in the creation of the characters and stories. Let’s just say that although I fully acknowledge that the artists carried their share of the load I also believe Lee carried his fair weight too).

Origins of Marvel Comics page 80
Origins of Marvel Comics page 80
Origins of Marvel Comics page 79
Origins of Marvel Comics page 79

Lee’s text also includes a few titbits about changes made to the original stories. The reasons for The Hulk’s change of skin colour from grey to green is discussed and both examples are illustrated: the cover to The Hulk #1 shows the character in grey but for the rest of story he has been recoloured green for this collection. Lee also discusses the various artists strength and weakness. For example, Kirby was originally slated to draw the first Spider-Man story but when Lee saw the first drawn pages he judged the style too grandiose and so gave Steve Ditko the commission due to his more naturalistic drawing style. Lee also discusses the amount of reader fan mail Marvel received from students concerning Dr Strange’s incantations and his decision to give Thor a more Shakespearian way of talking. And Lee’s epilogue continues Marvel’s tradition of acknowledging the other writers, artists and production staff who contributed to the company’s success.

Origins of Marvel Comics epilogue
Lee’s Epilogue

Surprisingly for a book that would become so important to comics history Origins of Marvel Comics features a couple of surprising production errors. Lee’s introduction to the second Spider-Man story, ‘Rocked by the Shocker’ (from The Amazing Spider-Man #72), is clearly referring to #82’s “And Then Came Electro!” which is not included, a strange oversight in what is clearly supposed to be a prestigious book (the story would eventually see print five years later in the Fireside Books collection The Amazing Spider-Man). And Lee’s introduction to the last Dr Strange story appears before the second and the book’s epilogue doesn’t appear at the end but before the third Dr Strange tale.

Origins of Marvel Comics was so successful when it was published that more ‘origin’ collections were added over the next three years: Son of Origins of Marvel Comics (1975); Bring On The Bad Guys (1976) and The Superhero Women (1977). After that there were a further seven volumes of collected stories but these did not feature origin tales, probably because they’d run out of stories. In 1978 Marvel and Fireside would collaborate on another important comic book first: The Silver Surfer, The Ultimate Cosmic Experience was a 99 page story by Lee and Kirby that was created specifically to be published in book form and is widely acknowledged to be one of the first Graphic Novels, another innovation that would have huge ramifications for the industry. The success of the Marvel/Fireside collections also led to a string of smaller, paperback sized reprints published by Pocket Books and I’ll be looking at all of those, as well as the Fireside books, over the next few months.

Due to the popularity of trade paperbacks it’s difficult to appreciate the impact Origins of Marvel Comics had on the industry when it was first published. To take content that many traditionally believed to be light-weight and for kids and to publish it in book format, by a reputable and long established publisher no less, removed a lot of the stigma attached to comics and placed them squarely on the library shelf. True, the stories contained in the book have been reprinted in other collections during the succeeding years but I’m still very fond of my old, albeit tatty, copy which I’ve used to illustrate this article (it looks so scruffy because I lent it to a school mate years ago and I think he must have slept on it before returning it). Although long out of print, copies of Origins of Marvel Comics can still be found online for around £20-30, not cheap by any means but then again not too pricey for someone who wants a chance to own a small piece of comic book history.

Origins of Marvel Comics
Published by Fireside Books, September 1974, 254 pages
Softcover: ISBN 978-0671218638
Hardcover: ISBN 978-0671218645