One of my favorite things about Marvel Comics were the Bullpen Bulletins pages. They seemed to make the reader feel as if they were part of special club, led be a merry prankster by the name of Stan Lee. The other day I got to wondering, when and how did the Bullpen Bulletins pages actually start appearing in Marvel Comics?
Fantastic Four #1 was published in 1961, but the editorial content in Marvel Comics remained confined to the single page of letters which began in FF #3. A few months later this was expanded to 2 pages. Stan Lee must have realized he had a new opportunity to market to his fans, and began a section of yellow boxed "Special Announcements" and Mighty Marvel Checklists. The one above is from Fantastic Four #44 in November 1965. Notice that one of the letter writers was none other than Dave Cockrum, who would be working at Marvel on the Avengers and the X-Men in the 1970s.
In the same year, Marvel helped launch the Merry Marvel Marching Society (MMMS) fan club. They started devoting a page to advertise this new club. The ad above appeared in FF #40 from July 1965. They started listing the names of the fans who had recently joined. Notice in this particular ad, the name listed at the bottom: Bud Plant, from San Jose, California! Bud Plant started selling comics and books in 1970 and became one of the largest distributors of comics, games and art books in the 70s and 80s. He recently retired last year.
So there was an evolution of sorts: the letters page, special announcements, Mighty Marvel checklists, and then special pages for Marvel merchandise. What could tie all of these things together and speak even more directly to the reader? A Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page! The first one appeared in December 1965, the one above was taken from FF #45. With the classic Marvel saying, Face Front! It combined all of the elements from the letters column with tabloid bite-size nuggets of Marvel news. Joe Sinnott was back at Marvel, Adam Austin was the nom de plume of Gene Colan, and would we ever see King Kirby ink himself? Our parents may have been reading really kinky Hollywood tabloid, but for comics geeks this was all the gossip we wanted to know.
A couple of months later in Feb 1966, the Bullpen Bulletins evolved into a more classic form. A snazzy headline, more news items and an expanded checklist. One of the biggest news items was that Roy Thomas had recently joined the House of Ideas, and he was probably one of the best people that Stan Lee had ever hired. And looking at the Marvel Checklist, it was pretty easy to collect all 9 Marvel Comics that month--if you could find them at the drugstore.
Even though Stan may have helped created and write these editorial pages, there was still something missing: a way for Stan to speak directly to his flock of geeks! Just over a year later, the very first Stan Lee's Soapbox appeared in July 1967, this one taken from FF #63. In this column, Stan is acting all humble and tossing aside any comments seeking deeper meaning in his comics in a column titled The Marvel Philosophy. Nay, Stan's first and foremost priority was to entertain, and sell more comics than his Direct Competition. I love the hip 60s lingo that ran from his word balloons and into his Soapbox: That's it, pussycat! Thanks to Tom Jones and a Woody Allen movie, every cat in the know used words like pussycat. I think if I said that at work today I might be fired for harassment!
Bullpen Bulletins was Stan Lee's most powerful weapon when it was time to push a new series into the collective consciousness of Marvel zombies. This one, taken from September 1970 (FF# 102) is memorable for two reasons. As you can clearly see, Marvel was hyping up Conan the Barbarian and trying to get jaded superhero-only fans to read a Sword and Sorcery comic. It took a while but it eventually worked in my case. Stan Lee's Soapbox contained a startling announcement: Jack Kirby was leaving Marvel! Well, you kind of knew it was happening by that time if you had seen the ads from DC Comics. But in this column, Stan takes an event that would seemingly bring his House of Ideas down and tried to make lemonade. With a new influx of talent, such as Gerry Conway, Marv Wolfman, Steve Englehart, Steve Gerber, Barry Smith, Rich Buckler, etc., Marvel was in a position to grow. Interestingly enough there is a long column about John Romita, who took over the FF artistic reins from the King. The mention of Steve Ditko leaving Spider-Man years before was also a bit unexpected--these pages were promotional items, yet here an event was mentioned that was somewhat sad.
It's a shame the Bullpen pages have disappeared over the years; the comic book stories were only part of what made me Marvel great. Message boards and blogs don't even come close to spreading the magic.
Thanks to the Bullpen Bulletins blog who covered all of this material in their article. Nuff Said!