The Secret Stories of the Marvel Universe

By | Monday, November 01, 2021 3 comments
When I was just getting into comic books in the early 1980s, my options for "research" were pretty limited. There were no comic shops nearby to pick up back issues, conventions for few and far between, the internet didn't yet exist, and my income as a 12-year-old was limited to pocket change I earned caddying at a local golf course. (Which, by the way, was nowhere NEAR as neat a job as Caddyshack led me to believe!) The reprint policies we see today were FAR from the norm, which meant that even finding reprints of old comics was difficult!

But for some reason, in 1981, Ideals produced a series of four trade paperbacks featuring a short collection of stories reprinting tales of Spider-Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four housed under a "Secret Story of..." umbrella. They had original painted covers (I believe all by Bob Larkin) and all featured the same back illustration and cross-promotion (seen below at right). Each book contained an origin (though not necessarily the original telling), one stand-alone story from around 1970, and a then-recent-ish stand-alone story. I presume the intent was to show how the characters have progressed over the course of two decades. David Anthony Kraft provided introductions for each story, short character biographies, and some general background information.

And, for whatever reason, our local library had a set of these.

It was a small library; the town only had a population of about 7,000. They had a few floppies that periodically came (I only recall The Avengers but I'm sure there were a few other titles) but these Ideals books were just about the full extent of their graphic novels section. As I recall, they were shelved between the Garfield and Peanuts collections, and the how-to-draw books, mostly ones by Lee Ames. I checked these out fairly regularly, particularly the Fantastic Four volume, and until I got my hands on a set of the Marvel Handbooks around 1988/89, these were pretty much the extent of what I was able to learn about the history of the Marvel Universe.

Strange to think now of the limitations fans faced even as recently as the 1980s with regards to older stories. We knew they were out there; the current issue number indicated that there were several hundred issues that came before. If you could get to a comic shop, you could rummage through the back issue bins, but even if they did have every issue (which they never even came close to!) you couldn't afford them all. You could find the origin stories in a few places, but if you wanted to see what happened in #5, or #12, or whatever, you were largely out of luck until you could find an original copy and afford to purchase it. So in that sense, the "secret story of" wording was pretty accurate; the stories were pretty secret by virtue of their scarcity.

But even back in the day, I recognized that those Ideals books did not live up to the publisher's name. The spot illustrations used throughout the books were very badly cropped and placed. I didn't think the story selections were all that good (greatful as I was to have them available). Kraft's interstitial prose struck me as both sophomoric and condescending. But they did help to connect me with comics that were published before I was born, and provided a window to a larger tapestry of stories. And for that, I'll have to thank them.
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Matt K said...

By the early 1990s it was already so different, even before the World Wide Web.

For one thing, trading cards provided a mountain of bite-sized background.

Comic stores were more widespread. Maybe catalog shopping was better also?

And there was more to order, not only back issues themselves, but iirc things like Marvel's series were published over the course of the 1980s.

Catalog shopping was definitely better, even if you just look at the ads in the comics. Back through '70s and '80s, you had that little 1" x 2" blurb from Robert Bell with the bad Thor rip-off where you had to send in a SASE just to get a list of what he had!

In the late '80s and into the '90s, you start getting those double-page spreads from Mile High Comics and American Entertainment just listing out hundreds of issues for sale.

There were also the Marvel Handbooks and DC's Who's Who that came out in the late '80s and continued into the '90s. Marvel Saga fell into that same realm.

Marvel and DC both slowly started upping their reprint and collections games as well.

So yeah, TONS more in 1991 than in 1981!

Anonymous said...

I bought these at age 12 in the bookstore of the Air and Space Museum no less. I treasure them to this day. They opened doors to these characters and their history in a very accessible way and was a direct line into the monthly stories for me.