Licensed comics based on existing properties are as old as the medium (believe it or not, kids, Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis could once sustain long-running series) and I’ve always had a weird yen for Marvel Comics’ exuberant movie and TV comics franchises of the 1970s.
Marvel has had a huge run of licensed comics that kicked off with the huge success of Conan the Barbarian although for many in my generation, their excellent Star Wars series was what hooked fans for a lifetime. (I’ve dabbled in the many, many Dark Horse and later Marvel Star Wars comics over the years, but for me, still, the only “real” Star Wars comics are the original 107-issue Marvel run.)
Beginning in the mid- to late 1970s, Marvel licensed comics were EVERYwhere – toy lines like Shogun Warriors and Micronauts and ROM, movies like Planet of the Apes and Battlestar Galactica and Godzilla.
The licensed titles were often advertised in the pages of other comics I already read, and I usually hadn’t seen the source material they were based on, so things like the brief seven-issue run of Logan’s Run or the real-life stuntman The Human Fly always intrigued me. Who were these characters side-by-side with Thor and Iron Man? Why was there a comic about them?
The Marvel licensed comics of the 1970s were all over the map, quality-wise, but they also had a sense of freedom. ROM spun an entire epic cosmic war out of its cheap plastic toy inspiration, and Marvel’s Godzilla brought us the immortal image of Godzilla shrunk down to human-size and skulking around Manhattan in a trenchcoat. The licensed comics never felt like they had to be particularly faithful to their sources, so you got things like Star Wars’ immortal, somewhat controversial Jaxxon the rabbit that you can’t imagine Disney/Lucasfilm would ever permit today.
There were a lot of strange creative chances taken by Marvel in the 1970s when it came to licensing comics – such as Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey being very loosely adapted and expanded upon years after its release by Jack Kirby, (a bizarre combination that shouldn’t have worked but somehow did), or rock star Alice Cooper getting a horror-tinged one-shot comics tryout.
So anyway, this weird completism is why I ended up buying the entire brief seven-issue run of Man From Atlantis for cheap recently, because it’s one of the few ‘70s Marvel licensed series I’d never read. I don’t even LIKE the TV series, really, and honestly Marvel publishing what was always basically a bargain-bin version of their far cooler character Namor the Sub-Mariner seemed weird. But hey, the comic was written by Marvel’s go-to licensed comics guy, the underrated Bill Mantlo, and art by Frank Robbins, whose loose-limbed antic figures appeal to me more now than they once did. The comic is actually fairly fun underwater antics with a far higher budget than the TV series had – and more inventive than its source.
Licensed comics are still very much about today – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the indefatigable Star Wars, Transformers, Star Trek, GI Joe, Conan and much more carry on telling stories that go far beyond the source material, yet when I pick them up they always seem a bit constrained, somehow. Maybe the big difference is that when those Star Wars and Godzilla comics were on the stands 40 or so years ago, you couldn’t just hop online and watch a Star Wars movie. You had hazy memories of cinema visits, and the tie-in comics provided a valuable map back into the entertainment you dug. Licensed comics allowed you to return to these worlds, again and again, when it wasn’t quite so easy to do so.
These days, with so much of everything everywhere all the time, a licensed comic seems somewhat less unique than it once did, and more just a part of the flood of content washing over us all. Hey, but that’s cool – I’ve still got quite a few issues of Micronauts to track down.