Monday, February 8, 2010

Marvel's Savage Magazine Format

This week saw The Indomitable Iron Man hit stands. A third showing in Marvel’s slow reintroduction, of sorts, of the big black and white magazine format books of ye olden days. It started with The Savage Sword of Conan and here’s why you should be excited about what’s coming up in this format that is the Grindhouse of the four colour Cineplex world.

Curtis Magazines

The Indomitable Iron Man is very different from most Iron Man comics hitting the stands right now. Where the character usually stands for technological achievement and futurism as an ideal this format represents a rougher edge of our past and the ability to scrape a character down to their rusty bolts and then chip away with blunt tools.

The black and white magazine format was used by Marvel, through their imprint Curtis Magazines, in 1974 to circumvent censorship by the Comics Code Authority. As a ‘magazine’ the format didn’t have to conform to the guidelines that had been set in place for two decades on all comics being published under their banner. This meant that stances on crime, smut and gore were a little more open. Not to say all comics should include these aspects, but some stories naturally go there and this need not be hidden away from the private eyes of discerning adult readers.

Savage Sword of Conan

Marvel had been publishing Conan the Barbarian since 1970 but there were limitations on what they could have the wandering Cimmerian rogue do. There is an audience that wants to see him become more like his original incarnation by Robert E Howard and so Savage Sword of Conan was created to allow these stories to be told.

The magazine instantly distinguished itself by having more adult covers. As earlier pulp paperbacks had Frank Frazetta glossy images gracing the covers so too did Savage Sword of Conan introduce Frazetta-like artist Boris Vallejo to the world. He crafted the first cover of the magazine and drew nastier ghouls, meaner looking barbarians, and much more voluptuous women. They wanted images that would jump off the stands and into more adult hands. This was art, real art.

The stories in Savage Sword of Conan sliced into the heart of darkness a little closer than Roy Thomas had been able to for the regular comic-style title for Marvel with Barry Smith (not using the Windsor at the time), who drew many of the first two years’ worth of issues for Marvel. These stories would be used as back up material for Savage Sword but the frontline pieces would be grittier, a more sketchier style in black and white that didn’t need to blend lines to appeal to the little ones. This was a harsh world for a harsh set of tales.

Sometimes there would be text pieces in between the stories, one of the most revered pieces being Robert E Howard’s original timeline for the Conan mythology to show where he did things and when. Howard had created this essay in league with two amateur Conan historians, P. Schuyler Miller and Dr John D Clark. This sort of thing was not out of place for it was an adult magazine, text pieces were allowed and appreciated.

Savage Sword of Conan ran for just over 20 years, publishing 235 issues and becoming a classic in the field of comic magazines. It was joined by other classics in the Curtis stable like Rampaging Hulk, Planet of the Apes, Dracula Lives!, and Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, though none of them survived nearly as long as Conan reigned supreme. All of them added a bleaker image to the comics world and gained popularity with teenage audiences looking to test the adult waters a little bit deeper.

Rampaging Wolverine

The format hasn’t been seen for some time and yet last year Marvel released Rampaging Wolverine in April for $3.99 and little to no fanfare. It featured stories by Josh Fialkov, Chris Yost, and Ted McKeever, with a text piece by Robin Furth. It boasted of being ‘too hot for colour to handle and NO ADS!’

It was seen as an experiment and one not widely accepted as successful. The tales were not typical Wolverine as one had him solo, and uncostumed, in Madripoor, and the art styles were much more experimental. However, for every use of innovation with the tones used and story told that people appreciated there were also others holding their nose at what was presented to them. The audience was not instantly reached, only selling a meagre ~18k units and putting it at 126 on the monthly list. This was no doubt helped by it being a Wolverine title more than anything.

Shang Chi: Master of Kung Fu

Months later, Shang Chi: Master of Kung Fu came out in the same format. This time it had Jonathan Hickman, Mike Benson, Charlie Huston, and another text piece from Robin Furth. It received slightly better praise from the critical pundits yet didn’t sing this glorious format back to life on its own.

Hickman used Deadpool, an obvious grab for attention and sales in the current market, with Shang Chi and pitted them on an insane race in a little title he liked to call, “The Annual Race to Benefit Various and Sundry Evil Organizations and Also the Homeless. Now with Beer and Hot Dogs”. It used various off the wall creations for Hickman to enjoy himself and create something that was indeed unique for the format. Sure, nowadays this sort of content can easily be packaged into a T+ title, or even Max, but it sure is fun to reminisce.

The Mike Benson tale shows Shang Chi fighting in glorious Tomm Coker art, with the use of Chinese characters being spoken and English subtitles appearing below the panel. The feel of 70’s kung-fu exploitation drips off the page like Bruce Lee’s sweat and it makes the format feel more authentic for the effort. Charlie Huston’s “The Vacuum of Memory” is just as authentic and retro in feel. Another text piece from Furth adds to the melange.

You can’t help but feel that Shang Chi is a much better suited character to this format. He originated in the era of exploitation and can easily be put back into grainy roots without it feeling forced. Though Wolverine can be a ‘real’ character from time to time you just don’t get that pulpy feel from him as he’s the poster-mutie for Marvel Crossovers and big selling, multiple titles. Shang Chi sold ~16k and ranked 142 for its month, which is understandable, even impressive, seeing as Shang Chi hasn’t carried a title in a long time and is a character many are unfamiliar with.

The Indomitable Iron Man

This week brings us The Indomitable Iron Man. Using the format on Marvel’s golden Avenger seems to be a ploy to have more buyers check out the format, and probably a smart one as, like Wolverine, Tony Stark brings in the money, especially lately with his cinematic success. Sadly, like Wolverine, it will sit among many different Iron Men on the shelves and due to the fact it has no colour will most likely not attract enough of an audience to crack the Top 100.

The issue looks impressive with the likes of Paul Cornell, Howard Chaykin and Duane Swierczynski involved. I hope it will take a space-pulp style to the format, as the solicits mention an out of control, hyper-intelligent space probe bent on terraforming the planet, and Tony battling Titanium Man while still fielding calls from Stark International. It’s likely to have some laughs and some interesting perspectives and hopefully will point people towards this format as there are two more, different, solicitations for March and April, and ones that will excite many comic fans, I am sure.

The Mystic Hands of Doctor Strange

The Mystic Hands of Doctor Strange will bring us March Madness from Kieron Gillen, Mike Carey, Ted McKeever, and Peter Milligan. It promises to show us the Sorcerer Supreme (as he still is in these older set stories) up against the magical might of a political terrorist known as the Doktor. We’ll seen Stephen Strange in a tale of therapy and a man crippled inside, and then the good doctor battling a demon in the streets of New York. It looks like it will bring the Cyttorak goodness and I, for one, welcome our crimson banded overlord.

Doctor Strange, much like Shang Chi, is a much better suited character for this format, and the Master of the Mystic Arts is helped by being a character that actually has a wide audience, many of whom long for the olden golden days of Ditko mania. This format could just be the perfect home for the insanity that being a Sorcerer Supreme can yield, if only for one month.

Savage Axe of Ares

It takes Marvel five times but they finally get it right. Ares is the only successor to the format that Conan dominated for so long. He’s solicited as having changed the world through violence. Through brutality. Through war. He’s lived for thousands of years and fought in all manner of campaigns and theatres of blood and death. If anyone deserves a black and white one-shot that need not conform to any standards it is the God of War.

Gregg Hurwitz, John Barber, and Ted McKeever are set to bring us a mixed array of battle madness and I am a little shocked that this hasn’t been given any more attention. These titles could really sell if marketed well. Sadly, right now we don’t even have preview pages for either title, and no cover for Ares. In an age of digital creation, this format needs to be sold on the artwork being something you cannot get anywhere else. Something that feels like it was created 40 years ago and is being rescued and for our eyes only.


I’d like to see the Mighty Marvel Magazines make a comeback, and I’m sure there are plenty of other characters that would fit the mould perfectly to give us a grittier little pleasure for only $3.99 for 48 pages, NO ADS! The solicits may become an interesting place over the coming months if this format is given a somewhat modest revival.

If they are going to have a proper go at this retro-revival I feel they need to pay better attention to the covers they put on each one-shot. They should have that Frazetta/Vallejo feel to them (especially Savage Axe of Ares), you want to be able to smell the smoke and taste the blood on the air. The ones they use now all you can do is feel the gloss beneath your fingers, and though impressive is not representative of what you are getting inside. The format is a different style and a different pleasure and so needs to be sold as such.

Have you bought any of the previous magazines, and what were your thoughts? Do you plan on picking up any of the coming magazines? Do you see this as a viable option for Marvel to throw out whenever they amass the right stories? Are there any characters you would love to see get the magazine format treatment? Let us know in the comments your thoughts on this matter.

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Ryan Schrodt said...

I've only picked up the Shang-Chi book and only then because I got it for a $1. Even though I'm way too cheap for things like this, I will say that it was an awesome comic. These Svage Magazines are worthwhile if for nothing else, then simply because it allows creators to cut the reigns from the usual styles and stories we see in the monthlies.

Now I just want to know when will we get the Raging Fur of Rocket Raccoon?!

dovisdov said...

Did you guys catch Geoff Johns tweeting the Lafreeze version you created?

Brandon Whaley said...

I can't wait to read Savage Axe of Ares. CAN'T WAIT.

CasinoGrande said...

I picked up the Shang-Chi copy as well as the recent Iron Man one. I really enjoyed the Shang-Chi, though I only found out about it because of Twitter. It was totally absent from Marvel's online catalog. Otherwise it might have sold a bit better

PMMJ said...

This would be a great format for some of the cosmic stuff going on, as well.

Other good calls:
Moon Knight
Union Jack

But really, nothing can beat titles like "Dracula Lives!" and "Deadly Hands of Kung Fu." Both reek of awesome.

Brandon Whaley said...

Yes, THIS is where the Silver Surfer could make his comeback! Its perfect! "Silver Surfer: Herald of Galactus!"

Ryan K Lindsay said...

Yeah, it's a solid way to broach a new character, or return of a wicked old school pulp one. It's a one-shot, it's usually got four different stories, so something is able to stick, and it's able to separate a little from continuity and have the creators tear loose.

Moon Knight is a good choice, I'd love to see a Daredevil one, plus an Iron Fist one, but even a Cap one would be good, old war stories, or Nick Fury for sure, Steranko-style S.H.I.E.L.D. stories!

Silver Surfer could most certainly make a one month comeback in this form, I'd buy it.

brandon said...

I purchased the rampaging Wolverine and was left unimpressed. It's not enough interesting material. It just seems like leftover filler issues jammed into a book that gets no color.

I wouldnt mind if they took the approach of having a bunch of stories of varying lengths and styles, included essays or novellas about a character. Something like the Hulk Monster One Shot in 2008. I'd buy that about almost any Marvel character.

Anonymous said...

the old punisher epics were sick

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