The Marvel Vault
Review by KC Carlson
Welcome to the Ancient and Honorable Order of THE MERRY MARVEL MARCHING SOCIETY
Congratulations, favored one!
…For having the wisdom and wit to become a Merry Marvel Marcher!
Your name has been ceremoniously entered in our log book, and your dollar has been avariciously deposited in our treasury!
From this day forth, you will stand a little straighter, speak a little wiser, and walk a little prouder. You’ve made the scene! You’re in! You’ve joined the winning team!
But, with such triumph comes responsibility. You must use your valued membership privileges judiciously. You must be true to the Marvel Code of Ethics: Be not arrogant towards those who have shunned our ranks, for they know not what they’re missing. Be not hostile towards unbelievers who march with others, for they’re more to be pitied than scorned. Be not intolerant of Marvel-defamers, for they too shall someday see the light. And above all, be not forgetful that you have become our bullpen buddy. Henceforth, you shall never march alone!
Thus, we welcome you to the fold with this sagacious admonition — FACE FRONT! You’re one of us now!
(signed) The Bullpen Gang
Thus, were the words that molded a million minds (eventually). From the feverish typewriter of Stan Lee in 1964, a legion of young Marvel comics fans were brought together by these words and made to feel a part of something bigger than themselves. And for only a dollar!
This was the letter that was sent to all of the fans who sent in their dollar (worth about 8 comic books at the time) to join The Merry Marvel Marching Society (better known to us card-carrying members as the MMMS). It’s also one of the key artifacts in The Marvel Vault, “A Museum-In-A-Book (TM) with rare collectibles from the World of Marvel”. It’s accompanied by the classic orange “The M.M.M.S. wants YOU!” sticker starring The Thing, the “I belong: The Merry Marvel Marching Society” sticker (each actually stickers here, as well), and a replica of the original MMMS membership card. Or more accurately, a reproduction of KENNETH QUATTRO’s membership card, since his name is boldly typed onto the card. (So now I have to get my fake I.D. changed to say “Kenneth Quattro” so that they’ll match. So long, Duffy Smithsonton…)
The Vault, originally published in the summer of 2007, has been making news here at CWR, as we’ve been tracking its price at Amazon plummeting from its $50 list price to (currently) under $20. And I can say, wholeheartedly, that it’s worth every penny at the former price, making the current price a huge bargain!
Written by long-time Marvel freelancers and former staffers Roy Thomas and Peter Sanderson, The Marvel Vault is a wonderful trip down memory lane for those of us who were made to feel like part of the Marvel Bullpen at the time, as well as an excellent overview for those who haven’t captured and retained the history like the hivemind that comics fandom is.
In fact, at first glance, this looks like the kind of book that the respected Thomas and Sanderson could have written in their sleep — due to the vast storehouses of knowledge that they both retain. But this kind of project is tougher than it looks, as it’s easy to get lost in detail (or showing off), but both authors resist the temptation and produce a text that moves along briskly and confidently.
That said, there’s still lots of detail to be had, including a few things that I didn’t know (or had forgotten), including the revelation that problems with the Comics Code may have been a factor in the cancellation of the 1962 Incredible Hulk series, the original Hulk being one scary dude (for 1962 anyway). The usual Marvel controversies (Stan vs. Jack, Stan vs. Steve, etc.) are acknowledged but not discussed in detail. If it’s information about the more controversial issues of Marvel’s history that you’re looking for, you’re not going to find that here. And more to the good of the project, I say. This book is a celebration of company and its ephemera.
The bulk of the narrative focuses on the Golden Age era of the 40s and 50s — much of which we’re still learning details of — and of Marvel’s heyday in the swingin’ Sixties of the Silver Age. The Vault opens up to show a lot of great photographs, artwork, and promotional items from these eras, much of it previously unpublished or rarely seen, including office birthday and Christmas cards and reproductions of some very cute postcards that Sub-Mariner artist Bill Everett sent to his daughter in 1956. The 1960s chapter includes a lot of photographs of the Bullpenners and freelancers, including a reprint of the little-known Bullpen photos pages from Marvel Tales Annual #1. And I could look all day at Marie Severin’s office cartoons and cover sketches.
The artifacts are the real stars of the show here, and some of the best include a reproduction of the 1976 Howard the Duck for President (“Get Down America” indeed!) button (now a sticker here), a replica of the first Marvel Comic Convention program, a whole page of Marvel Value Stamps (reproduced on actual deteriorating newsprint!), a Marvel Visitor badge (which gained you entry into the bullpen!), and the invitation to Peter and Mary Jane’s wedding. Of unique note is a facsimile of 20 shares of Marvel Entertainment Group stock (ascribed to Roy and Dann Thomas, no less), which I find amusing for a number of reasons, but mostly for the image of the busty babe in recline at the top of the stock. Yikes, how close to comics can you get?
Also of curiosity is the menu for the ill-fated Marvel Mania restaurant from 1998, where you can order Pulse-Poundin’ Pizza or Stanwiches or (my favorite) Howard the Duck chicken fingers. The curious thing about the menu is that it’s the only artifact in the book that doesn’t say “Reproduction” on the back. This, and the fact that my menu (which came in a shrink-wrapped book) is “well-thumbed” can only lead to one conclusion — is this a “real” menu?
I got so sucked into this book, playing with the artifacts and remembering the good times associated with Marvel, that I actually got caught up into thinking that a printing mistake was part of the fun! On page 122, there’s a partial printed fingerprint — obviously a printing error. But it set my mind awash with possibility. “Is that Jack’s fingerprint?” I wondered. “Does Mark Evanier have Kirby’s fingerprints? For comparison…?” Obviously, I need professional help.
By the time the narrative winds into the 80s and 90s, the story is less about what’s going on in the comics and more about what’s happening “around” the comics — movies and TV shows, the Spidey balloon in the Macy’s parade, theme parks, speculator boom and bust, and business woes. In fact, reading the chapter on the 90s gave me the same kind of headaches I had back in the day while reading many of the actual comics of the 90s. Now, that’s nostalgia!
But oddly enough, and the authors don’t really spell this out, what the chapter on the 90s really pointed out was that much of the history of Marvel revolves around “madmen” taking some sort of control of the company (50s: Martin Goodman, screwing around with distribution; 80s: Jim Shooter, alienating many long-time creative folk; 90s: Ron Perelman and friends, junk bonds and lord knows what else), making disastrous decisions, and either financially or creatively bringing the company to the brink of extinction.
But then again, “madmen” like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and dozens of other wonderful, talented people were what made Marvel great. They’re what The Marvel Vault is all about. And as a “tip o’ the hat” to them, let us rise, face front — toward the mighty Marvel flag, place our hands over our hearts (forgetting the controversy of the removal of the words “under Thor”)* and recite the Merry Marvel Pledge (from the back of the MMMS membership card):
“I pledge allegiance to the mags of the Marvel Group, and to the madmen who put them on the stands. One bullpen, understaffed, indecipherable, with liberty and boo-boos for all.”
*(I made that part up. Sorry.)