Marvel Science Fiction Cover Caption Contest

Marvel Science Fiction is a science fiction magazine that existed for a very short publication run  near the end of the pulp era. For a time pulps were changing into the SF/Fantasy anthologies that would populate racks but they had a rough time of it. Published by Martin Goodman it was the descendent of Marvel Science Stories, Marvel Tales and Marvel Stories

Stating that sales and longevity of SF & Fantasy magazines in the 1950s was fair to middling is an understatement. Often the lurid covers, in an attempt to attract male readers, had the mixed result of catching a few sales but because of mature themes sales were probably lost because the books were considered for older readers and kept out of reach of younger buyers (at least as far as parental oversight was concerned).

One of the ways a limited promotional budget was stretched was to offer reader contests with prizes. Marvel Science Fiction held a Cover Caption Contest that encouraged readers to send in funny or pertinent one-liners to accompany the cover. The prizes from MSF consisted of original scripts and artwork, a mind-boggling thing today. It was an early form of the lolcat meme phenomenon, or to coin a phrase, the beginning of the lolpulp. Until relatively recently publishers considered art for such publications as pulps and comic books entirely disposable and outside of the initial cost to the creator ultimately worthless. This was an extension of the final product likewise being thought of as worthless after initial sale. Few artists ever felt this way but that was the nature of the work for hire business model. Unless the artist had a previous deal then art was often thrown out, given away to visitors or employees or re-purposed by the publisher with no thought to the cultural value. So giving away scripts or art made perfect financial sense. Outside of postage there would be little added expense to the publisher.

The results of the MSF caption contest had responses that were not the height of wit or insight. But attempts at seriousness or humor aside the great draw of winning the contest were the prizes. The first prize was a script from the issue and believe it or not, original art was the second prize. Don’t get me wrong, an original script by Fritz Leiber would be nice but a spot illustration by Frank R. Paul or Hannes Bok would be killer. I already own a few Paul illustrated pulps and they are becoming increasingly difficult to find in both good condition and in my price range. FYI, one of the most expensive vintage comics that exists has a Frank R. Paul cover, that of Marvel Comics #1 (1939). Amazing how perception has changed over the years that a script would be preferred over artwork. I’d say this change was mostly due to the monetary worth and cache of an original Hannes Bok over a typed script.

The first caption contest shown here is for the August 1951 issue and the publisher is behind the idea enough to devote a full page to it. The winning entries are variations of “They Went Thataway” and “Guided Tour”. Serviceable enough. Simple enough that if I read that I’d be mailing in a thousand variations myself confident that I could put the previous winners to shame and reap all the prizes. As it turned out wit, talent and hard work wasn’t really necessary.

The next contest is to caption a classic Hannes Bok good girl art cover of a world where gravity fails. And that is where things go south in several figurative ways. The November issue of Marvel Science Fiction was the last one before the publisher would turn to other, presumably less expensive efforts with a higher rate of return, namely Atlas Comics, which would one day revive the Marvel name.

The winning entries of  “Another Law repealed?” and “Paging Mr. Newton” are okay but not great and belated kudos to the winners. But in particular the last four entries were particularly uninspired and generate untold amounts of jealousy in me decades later.

The winning 3rd-6th place submitted the despairingly the lame “HUH?”,  “HEY!” and a tie for “OOPS!” which depresses me no end. Unbelievably these entries were awarded original art. The illustrations in this issue are credited to Harry Harrison (who did illustrations before becoming an author), the legendary Frank R. Paul, Hannes Bok and veteran pulp contributor Ames. If these pieces still exist somewhere think how important to art and pulp history they would be that if in a museum or library collection.

It is nearly impossible to say if the winners did or did not receive their prizes since MSF ceased publication with this issue. If they did then the people who won are some fortunate few and proof that the world is indeed topsy-turvey.

From the Collection: Stalker from the Stars

Those unfamiliar with Marvel comic book history would find the Hulk prose novel Stalker From the Stars reminiscent of cold war SF cinema but the book is really a blend of a 1950s Atlas/Timely alien invasion story (inspired of course by real world fears and concerns) featuring an un-evolved 1970s Hulk. This had precedent at the time as several Marvel heroes had come up against old villains from Marvel’s SF and Horror books of the past. While the dialog of SHIELD agent Clay Quartermain made me want to travel to the Fictionverse just to beat him up overall the book is not a bad read for a young adult novel.

Front and back covers of Stalker from the Stars (1978).

Futura – Chapter 22

Planet Comics #64 (Spring 1950) marks the finale to the Futura Saga. It took far longer to get there then I originally planned but the Planet Comics issues I was seeking are pretty rare and hard to get a hold of. Fortunately there are friends and other resources that allowed me to fill in the gaps in her story. This issue is one of those online copies floating around.

For those readers not patient enough to click through her entire tale, here is some back story:

Futura’s tale began in Planet Comics issue #43 in July of 1946. Secretary Marcia Reynolds is kidnapped from Earth and enslaved for medical experiments by the Brain-Men of Pan-Cosmos. She escapes, a bit too easily in fact, and steals a ship intending to head back to Earth. Unknown to Marcia Reynolds, now called Futura by her captors, her escape is being carefully monitored to measure her suitability for inclusion into the Pan-Cosmos genome.

Forced into situations that test her mettle, Futura evades her intended fate and gains allies, makes enemies and is a central witness to the fact that messiahs can be dangerous to your health. As her story continues, Futura becomes a wild card and her presence as a destabilizing threat to the status quo could not be tolerated by those in power. Fortunately for Futura the fragmented leaders of occupied space are corrupt, lazy and not used to rebellion from their cowed populace. Futura meets every challenge, fighting back ferociously and without hesitation.

For Futura does not just defeat an opponent, no. She utterly destroys an enemy by erasing their entire culture leaving them without a power base. What remains when she is done renders them in a state where they are no threat for the foreseeable future. While this tactic is not necessarily the action of a hero it certainly is that of a leader of nations. This Geo-political approach on a galactic scale is something that having recently emerged from a devastating World War the readers of the day could easily identify with.

So without further preamble here is the final climactic chapter to the Futura Saga.

Unlike many other of the Planet Comics serials Futura has a definite end to her tale, though some foreshadowing of trouble is evident. Reading the entire story of Futura I was not disappointed. While the series was sometimes the victim of the whims of scheduling, editors and creators and the series had some detours and false starts with the storytelling it was enjoyable and fantastic fun. Most serialized pulp tales, of which Futura is certainly descended from, have some element of empire-building in them and this tale was no exception. The average man, or in this case woman, is plucked from obscurity and thrust into “a world they never made” and by the end of the adventure they are Lords or Kings or Queens. Futura is cast in that mold.

Futura is different, however in that she did not simply storm the castle and sit upon the throne thereby declaring victory and an end to tyrannical rule. She leveled the playing fields of Pan-Cosmos and known space, leaving every culture she came into contact with vulnerable to being rebuilt from scratch by someone else with the strength or character and arm to do so. In this instance, Futura herself. Futura may not have intended to and she often acted for selfish reasons related to her immediate survival but the result was she destroyed a galaxy in order to save it. In her final adventure it is evident she rules Oceania and the stage is set for her to take over known occupied space.

So what does the future hold for Futura?

Fan interest in Golden Age comic books is steady and it is exposure on the internet that is most likely the reason. Forums and blogs are probably directly responsible for some collections of old stories being collected by various publishers, namely the Fletcher Hanks and Boody Rogers strips to name a few examples. These books were collected not only for fans but for those not familiar with graphic art that until recently has been lost and forgotten by even many hard core aficionados. It would be nice to see a hardbound collection of Futura but admittedly the sometimes wandering storyline could be somewhat difficult to present. Taken as a whole the Futura story does not present a particularly cohesive universe and a reader has to suspend their ideas of ‘continuity’ and mentally edit some entries. It could be understood that many modern fans would not appreciate the abrupt shifts in the cultural backgrounds of the Futura universe.

It is difficult to measure if there is enough of a fan base to support a revival of Futura. Often it is easier and makes better business sense for someone to create an entirely new character inspired by an old character than it is to revamp one, no matter how enthusiastic one may be for the project. Any new entries to the Futura story would have to be a personal endeavor at heart, a labor of love for the character like the one that appeared in the 1980s. One that some may not understand but hopefully can appreciate because that admiration was was shared.

So will we see Futura again? Only time will tell. I, for one, can hardly wait.

Futura – Chapter 21

Planet Comics #63 (Winter 1949) gives us the penultimate chapter to the Futura Saga. In this issue one can see where Futura’s long, strange journey has been leading. Alliances shift rapidly as Futura once free of the Jar-Heads, turns against the very enslaved mutated people, albeit mind-controlled, she once sympathized with.

There is a lot of good imagery in this chapter that profiles Futura without the cheesecake that could be so common in her story. The last panel of page three is nearly iconic and the battle between the mutants and the Hawkmen is magnificent.

This chapter firmly establishes Futura in a setting more reminiscent of the Alex Raymond-drawn Flash Gordon strip. Yet familiarity with other popular forms of entertainment would not save the character from limbo. With only one more issue in the Planet Comics series to feature her story Futura would soon be consigned to the occasional black and white reprint of Golden Age comic books. An original story featuring a “Futura” character would not be produced until the early 1980s, a gap of thirty years between appearances.

Planetary Evolution

From the silly yet earnest early artwork depicting the hopeful future that still seemed to be steam-powered in spite of claims of cosmic and atomic power to the latter-day cover art that depicted hostile and strange life forms poised to consume and assimilate all civilizations, Planet Comics by publisher Fiction House is one of my favorite comic book titles. Not only did it feature Futura, a star-lost woman who alone fights for her freedom against human tyrants and aliens, but the title was both a perfect reflection and herald of trends in science fiction.

The long-running Planet Comics serials revealed what was popular, woefully passe and perhaps even what was anticipated in entertainment media of the genre. Styles were aped and innovation occurred in quantity. Aside from the tales the thematic transformations of the covers were likewise a good indicator of the changes that occurred over time to popular science fiction and the tastes of the market. Particularly noteworthy are the covers that feature women as being depicted as other than damsels in need of rescuing. While this happened more than some would think in the pulps and comics it was actually reflected in the stories within the magazine with the tales of Futura, Gale Allen and Mysta being prime examples. Though the artwork often favored stereotypical male power fantasies there are a number of covers that are progressive for the time.

Witness the evolution of 73 issues of Planet Comics from the early Pulp influences to the distinctive EC house-style of the 1950s by clicking the picture.

Planet Comics 001

Planet Comics by Fiction House Publishers (January 1940-Winter 1953).