continued from here, although today’s post is, I assure you, largely self-contained:
Perhaps I might pause at this point in proceedings to cast a glance at the competition faced by Phoenix: The Man Of Tomorrow #1 on the newsstands of November 1974. Given that the title was Atlas Comics’ opening gambit in its attempt to muscle in on the superhero market, how did it compare to the other 35 or so costumed crimefighter colour comics released in that month?
Obviously, Phoenix faced a series of intimidating disadvantages. The marketplace was crowded, sales were continuing to collapsing and there was a considerable degree of quality to be found from familiar companies and titles. In such a cut-throat environment, the fact that the Atlas titles were no less expensive than their rivals was yet another disadvantage. With the profits on monthly comics so small, it is of course understandable that Atlas didn’t, even if temporarily, undercut their competitors. For all of that, in such a fearsomely combative market, extreme and risky measures were really all that a publisher expanding from zero at such a pace with largely mediocre product had to play with.
Yet whether by luck or design, the three other well-established characters that Phoenix bore the most resemblance to, whether in terms of visual appeal or power-set, were largely, if not entirely, absent from November’s releases. Iron Man, Captain Marvel and Green Lantern were all pseudo-technologically enhanced Sci-Fi flavoured superheroes, with the latter two, in their Gil Kane-designed costumes, appearing to have been strong influences upon Phoenix’s appearance. It would be fascinating to know whether any of the powers-that-were at Atlas had scanned their commercial opponent’s release schedules for the best month to launch a new superbloke title. By the evidence of the company’s many other editorial decisions, it is, however, an unlikely hypothesis.
Iron Man, a bi-monthly, which says a great deal about its then-commercial appeal, had come out in the month previous. Although some of that particular issue would still have been on the stands, the newly-released Phoenix may well have appeared the more intriguingly fresh of the two. However, veteran George Tuska was then Iron Man’s artist, and, according to then Marvel editor/writer Roy Thomas, the title would always turn a good profit, if not yet a good enough one to increase to a monthly schedule, when he was onboard. It is doubtful that the less familiar and direct storytelling of Phoenix artist Sal Amendola could compete by contrast with Tuska’s recognisable, direct artwork. Iron Man did appear, however, on the covers of The Avengers #132 and Giant-Size Avengers #2 which, as written by Steve Englehart in collaboration with a host of other able professionals, were both selling well and developing intriguing, innovative storylines. Those fond of SciFi-esque protagonists with powerful supersuits already had a hero to follow in the Avengers franchise books.
Nor was Marvel’s Captain Marvel on sale in November 1974. Having just lost writer/artist Jim Starlin, the comic would slowly but surely dissipate the momentum it had developed under his leadership, ebbing along on a six-times-a-year schedule until early 1979. But in a month in which his old title was absent, Starlin returned with his reboot of Warlock in Strange Tales #178. Phoenix hit the stands two weeks before it, but in all other ways, Warlock was by far the superior bock. Clad, again, in a Gil Kane-designed costume, with all the simplicity and primary colours that Phoenix’s skintights lacked, Warlock hybridised a Marvel ‘cosmic’ SciFi-superhero with, in particular, Moorcockian fantasy. Brave, purposeful and, at first, entirely enthralling, Warlock was outstandingly crafted by a creator at the height of his powers. In every aspect that we’ve touched upon where the shortfalls in the storytelling in Phoenix are concerned, Warlock excelled. That Starlin chose to set his new series far, far off-Earth provided the only potential advantage in taste that Phoenix might possibly have enjoyed. Stories that took place exclusively in outer space traditionally prospered far less than those which were, in particular, set in North America. That may have one of the reasons why Starlin’s Warlock was dead in the water by late 1976. Regardless of that end, the initial appearance of the series must have convinced many who saw both it and Phoenix that the latter was, by comparison, a little league title. Others, it is true, may well have thought Warlock’s pages were just too disturbingly dark and unfamiliar. For younger casual readers, this may well have been more likely to be true.
Whether that would inspire them to reach for Phoenix rather than, say Spider-Man or Superman feels, however, unlikely. There were plenty more comfortingly familiar comics from the Big Two to be enjoyed first. Difference isn’t always a virtue, especially when it’s cut adrift from quality.
As (most probably) luck would have it for Phoenix, Green Lantern was at that time without a strip of his own, while the Justice League of America, upon whose covers Hal Jordan often starred, was also on a skip month. That really only left Charlton Comics’ E-Man #7 as the only title on sale in that month bearing a recognisable, if tangential, family resemblance to Phoenix. E-Man, a sentient alien energy force who’d opted to take the form and responsibilities of an Earthbound superhuman, was very much a sales outlier. Humorous in tone rather than furrow-browed, it was a breath of fresh air in a market saturated with deeply purple storytelling. It was most likely a difference that lent the title any advantage beyond a small kernel of fans: in the years since the Marvel Revolution, superbook fans have tended to prefer the portentous to the wry. Added to that, Charlton lacked Marvel and DC’s fan bases, while artist Joe Staton’s style was as yet obviously that of a promising beginner rather than an experienced pro. In a time when whimsy was often mistaken for a lack of seriousness, rather than a different way to discuss serious matters, E-Man would soon, sadly, disappear from sight.
Whether superhero comics fans, then and now, make their purchases based on such a narrow and deliberate comparison of character types is, at best, a fundamentally unlikely hypothesis. But given how many comic books were being published filled with superpeople, it may just be that Atlas had, by chance or not, given Phoenix the most competitive release slot that it might enjoy. For two weeks until the re-emergence of Warlock, Phoenix stood alone as a recognisably SciFi-superhero title. Yet at the same time, it can be seen that none of Phoenix’s closest rivals were actually significant commercial successes during the period. Iron Man and Captain Marvel were only appearing in their own comics 6 times a year. (Iron Man would return to a monthly schedule in 1975, but the title would wait exactly another 4 years, and the arrival of the creative team of Layton, Michelinie and Romita Jr, before it shrugged off its second-stringer tag.) E-Man’s release schedule was, in practise, even less frequent. Green Lantern wasn’t even being published at all.
It might be thought that Atlas had recognised that there was an under-developed niche to infiltrate. But then, it might also be thought that Atlas simply hadn’t done any kind of systematic analysis of what was really selling and what wasn’t. My suspicion is that the latter is most likely closer to the truth.
To be continued tomorrow, with a second and last look at the comics releases of November 1974.