One of the big appeals of Marvel Comics back in their pre-blockbuster movie days was that it seemed like a fun clubhouse, a friendly neighbourhood pub exclusively for comic-loving kids.
Stan Lee had a salesman’s knack for pumping up his own product starting all the way back in the ‘60s, with his snappy notes to “true believers” peppering every comic, editorial page and story credits. It set Marvel apart from the staid stiffness of DC Comics back then, and that wacky “Marvel Bullpen” idea carried right on through the swingin’ ‘70s, as Marvel started fan clubs and magazines and Stan appeared on the cover of magazines. Marvel was hip, it was cool!
That clubhouse mentality reached a fever pitch in the 1980s, long after Stan moved on to Hollywood, with Marvel’s in-house fanzine Marvel Age and the goofy delights of “Assistant Editor’s Month,” where Marvel pretended that the assistants took charge for a month of especially offbeat comics. Entire insanely comprehensive “official guidebooks” to Marvel’s fictional universe emerged in this time too, manna from heaven for kid geeks like me.
And then there were a series of early 1980s bizarre one-shot comics cashing in on that whole “ain’t Marvel fun?” mentality that I still kind of love, as silly and reeking of product-placement as they were. They were all experimental and heavily played up the exclusive club feeling Marvel strived so hard to keep going. Mostly forgotten now, these comics curios were peak Marvel gazing into the mirror at itself.
The Official Marvel No-Prize Book of 1983 was my favourite of the lot, a print version of the “TV bloopers” shows of the time where Marvel looked back at its greatest errors and mistakes. Stan Lee was dressed up as Dr. Doom on the cover and it was a giddy inside-baseball lark, exhuming such mishaps as Peter Parker becoming “Peter Palmer” in one story or the Hulk having only three toes. These were the memes of the pre-meme era, and Marvel was showing us it could laugh at itself with this deep-dive into continuity errors and artist’s gaffes. “It’s like the internet, except with paper cuts,” is the best possible review of this one.
The Marvel Fumetti Book wasn’t quite as successful, mainly because of the utterly dismal print quality of the time. The artists, writers and editors of the Marvel Bullpen took centre stage in this collection of comic ‘fumetti’ photographs with silly captions, with all sorts of crazy hijinks in Marvel’s offices (and of course, mascot Stan Lee on the cover, again). It’s amusingly meta but for me, the dim grey reproduction of the almost illegible photos kind of ruins the idea. But boy, did they make Marvel seem like a fun place to be.
Last and definitely least of these one-shots was 1984’s insane Generic Comic Book, a parody of the omnipresent fad for “generic” food products. It starred “Super Hero” fighting a “Super Villain” and hitting every by-the-numbers cliche about great power and great responsibility, secret identity dramas and more. Honestly, the best thing about is it the cover. The problem was within a few years an awful lot of comic books would fit this same generic template and the story lacks the go-for-broke spirit of a complete parody. It’s kind of like making a parody of Airplane! You could, but why would you? It’s an amusing curio, but about as essential as all those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle parodies that littered the floor of comic shops a year or two later. (And of course, Marvel did one of those, too.)
We know now that much of the happy-go-lucky Marvel bullpen notion was a bit of a fantasy – it was a workplace, after all, and as full of backstabbing and rivalries as anywhere else. Sean Howe’s masterful Marvel Comics: The Untold Story delves into this a lot. While great, late personalities like Mark Gruenwald and Archie Goodwin do sound like they were a lot of fun to work for, there was also a fair share of drama at Marvel in the 1980s too and Jim Shooter – who was in charge when most of these came out – was no Stan Lee. These days, it’s a multi-zillion-dollar moviemaking machine, part of the Disney empire, and while the comics are still going they probably seem a bit ancillary to the MCU.
But even though I know it was all a bit of a public-relations stunt, I still like the weird society Marvel pushed so hard in those days, the root of so many fan Facebook groups, message boards and channels today. These one-shots hyped the platonic idea of Marvel, and sure, they were selling you, but it felt fun to be sold to. Comics about creators of the comics were kind of a dead-end creatively, but I still like walking through that clubhouse door.