Thursday, May 31, 2012

Attack of the Fill-ins

The 1970s were a bad time for comic books. Demand was down and many traditional outlets like supermarkets stopped carrying comics. There were paper shortages which caused prices to outpace inflation. DC ended half their books because of paper shortages. A new generation of writers and artists had entered the field and they were enthusiastic but had not properly learned their craft.

Things were even worse at Marvel. Stan Lee had ended his long run as editor-in-chief and Marvel couldn't find a competent replacement. The office had a revolving door with each new editor only staying until it became obvious that he sucked. Regular assignments were similarly haphazard. New comics were created with a top-tier team who left within a couple of issues to go launch the next new comic. In some cases, a book might be cancelled by the time the first issue came out.

With all of this going on, production schedules slipped and people began missing deadlines. Since Marvel had a contractual obligation to get something out the door, they started resorting to fill-in issues. At first these were reprints or partial reprints framed with some new pages. Other times they would round up anyone available and have them do an issue. This may or may not work into the ongoing continuity.

I heard Tony Isabella tell about one Fantastic Four story he did under those circumstances, It had been plotted Marvel-style meaning that the artist was given a rough plot and the writer would add the dialogue to the finished art. Things were so tight that as soon as a page was drawn it was sent to Tony for word balloons then sent to be inked and lettered. Tony had the villain command "Release the Three Who Wait!". The next day he got the next page which had a fourth opponent. He solved this by having the Thing exclaim, "I thought you said there were only three!" and the villain replied "I lied!"  (note - in the 1970s, word balloons always ended in exclamation points).

Eventually Marvel started commissioning inventory stories just for missed deadlines. This was a good short-term solution but in the long-term it made things worse since it relieved some of the pressure. Nearly every comic was hit by a fill-in at some point. It got so bad that the staff began to joke about the DDD - Dreaded Deadline Doom.

A few fill-ins were actually good stories. Tony Isabella did one for the Avengers involving a professional assassin that I remember liking. That was an exception. Most fill-ins were, at best, annoying,

There were a lot of things going against the fill-ins, They interrupted the continuity, sometimes in the middle of an intense continued story. They were seldom done by the regular team for the comic, More often, the stories were written by assistants or new guys looking for work. There was little incentive for these people to do their best work since it might never be used, anyway.

Even with these excuses, it is hard to believe that Marvel once ran a comic pitting the Defenders against Tapping Tommy and his Killer Dancing Robots. Really. A frustrated chorus boy captured an Avengers-like team and tried to kill them with dancing robots.

This unfortunate period came to an end when Jim Shooter took over as editor-in-chief. He was controversial but he got production under control.

No comments: