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A Marvel Mystery: Fixing a date for Marvel's 70th anniversary

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Marvel Comics celebrated its 70th anniversary — dating from the shipment of Marvel Comics #1 — on August 11 in a variety of locations, and events are continuing through this week. Some have asked how a specific date could have been fixed for a book that shipped so long ago. In truth, as I said when Marvel consulted me a good ways back to research the date, there probably wasn't a single date.

Comics back then were generally post-dated — like all magazines on newsstands, publishers didn't want newsdealers pulling them off the shelves because they saw a cover date. Marvel was no different. But with Marvel #1, specifically, most copies actually have a black circle over the date, on the cover and inside, with November stamped on it. That suggests to me that they were probably really encroaching on the original October cover date — or, at least, they didn't like the number of weeks left between the ship date and October.

But there's another element in the mix: the "Pay Copy" of Marvel #1, the world's most valuable single copy of a comic book in 2001, before it sold for a lot less in 2007. The book had interior markior markings saying the dates that the Jacquet Studio (which Marvel, then Timely, had bought the art from) paid their freelancers. Those dates are all late July 1939. But it is hard to say that that proves the book has printed and in their hands before July — they could have been recording the earlier dates of payment. (I am guessing they were not paying on publication, but after the work was turned in.) That argues for August or September for the book’s release. And in any event, I'm not sure the date the comic book was printed is the important thing — we could well imagine Timely and its partners having books back from the printers before the newsstand received them.

So the Pay Copy is interesting, but what we really would like to see to prove when it hit standsis a copy with a newsdealer’s date-received stamp. Alternatively, someone could get a look at the Audit Bureau of Circulation’s records for Timely one of these days (though as Timely was just starting, the book might not have been audited). Another route would be to find a newsstand photograph where we can ID something known, like a Life Magazine cover. There aren't a lot of methods for dating something that far back, but those are three.

In any event, I think it is safe to say it came out before October/November, as the cover date says; somewhere between the earliest Pay Copy date in July and, probably, September. But as to a specific shipping day — a day for Marvel to point to for the 70th anniversary — again, I don’t think there is one. The distributors would have all shipped on different days. Even when we do have arrival stamps from comics in those days, multiple ones do not agree. Comics were not regarded as having any timely merit in those days, so the distributors would not have cared when they got the books to their stores (unlike, say, Life magazine). So I don’t think there's a lot of evidence that one day in this stretch is more deserving than another — though if more can be found, it certainly would be of interest!

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