The secret history of Marvel’s earliest graphic novels and books, circa 1983-84

The secret history of Marvel’s earliest graphic novels and books, circa 1983-84

Following the recent announcement that Marvel Comics is teaming with Scholastic for a series of all-ages graphic novels, we’re taking a look back at some of the publisher’s earliest bookstore offerings. Read on for a history lesson of the many formats and titles Marvel released in the early days of the graphic novel.

In the early 1980s, both DC Comics (via Warner Books) and Marvel Comics (via Fireside and Pocket Books) realized that there was a market for comicbook books in both comic shops and the book trade. Both companies set up their own in-house publishing houses and began selling a handful of titles each year, featured in bespoke spinner racks for both B. Dalton’s and Waldenbooks bookstore chains. (This is where I discovered most titles in 1984. Later, I would buy Life In Hell and Bloom County there as well, in the humor section.)

Here is a listing of Marvel’s first 100 titles, as best as I can discover online. There are gaps, possibly due to a title which was scheduled but later cancelled, or which was never released into the booktrade system.

The books follow certain formats:

    • The “Marvel Graphic Novel” series were graphic albums, similar in size to magazines.
    • Marvel Illustrated Books were comic book stories reformatted into a mass market format. Some were Marvel Super Special movie tie-ins, reformatted. Sometimes in color, usually in black-and-white.
    • Briefly, Marvel tried pop-up books.
    • There were also many activity books. The best known are the Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars titles, which were recently reprinted during the coloring book craze. Marvel also published tie-ins to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Heathcliff.

Of interest to collectors are the Big Looker Storybooks, which were picture books produced by Sol Brodsky’s staff, which included work by John Romita, Sr. and Marie Severin! Also of note is Berni Wrightson’s adaptation of Frankenstein, and a rare hardcover collection of Marvel team-up stories which appears to follow the series of anthologies published by Fireside Books.

I don’t know if these were successful, per se (most got reprinted later as graphic novels), but Marvel has kept publishing titles since then… Fireside keeps How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way in print, but that’s the rare title that’s stayed in print. I suspect even DC has retired the original edition of Watchmen, replacing that edition with the corrections from the Absolute Edition.

The cut-up paperback format/tradition goes back to at least the 1950s, with MAD Magazine. I don’t know the history of mass market paperbacks and comics… there were a few, like VIP and Dennis the Menace and Peanuts. Also the occasional anthology reprints of gag panels, by subject. The Berenstains did a series of original humor books. (Yes, the Bear couple.) The mass market format for comics vanishes around 2000, as trade editions (Garfield horizontal, Calvin and Hobbes square) become popular. Tor was still publishing a few DC titles in mass market editions, such as The Superman Story at the turn of the century.

Most of these early titles are curiosities. Either the original comics are easy to acquire, or Marvel has reprinted them more recently. If you’re a fan of the Smurfs, A-Team, Dungeons & Dragons, G.I. Joe, or Heathcliff, then you might be interested in the activity and storybooks.

Methodology: I did an initial search of the their ISBN prefix (978-0-939766) in Books In Print, then, using the progression, I calculated each unique EAN/ISBN and searched those via Google. 35 titles are unknown.

Marvel Comics    EAN prefix: 978-0-939766
EAN Title notes
9780939766000 Star Trek: The Further Adventures of the Starship Enterprise! Marvel Illustrated Books
9780939766017 The Uncanny X-Men Marvel Illustrated Books
9780939766024 Stan Lee presents the Fantastic Four Marvel Illustrated Books
9780939766031 Spider-Man Pop-Up Book “The Schemer Strikes”
9780939766048 The Amazing Spider-Man Pop-Up Book: Attack of the Tarantula
9780939766055 Stan Lee Presents the Incredible Hulk Pop-Up Book, “Ringmaster and His Circus of Crime”
9780939766062 Stan Lee Presents the Incredible Hulk Pop-Up-Book, “Trapped”
9780939766079 Stan Lee presents the Marvel Comics illustrated version of Conan the barbarian Marvel Illustrated Books; repackaging of Marvel Super Special #21
9780939766086 Stan Lee presents Captain America: Battles Baron Blood Marvel Illustrated Books
9780939766093 Stan Lee presents The Avengers. The Origin Of The Vision Marvel Illustrated Books
9780939766109 Stan Lee presents the Marvel Comics illustrated version of Blade runner repackaging of Marvel Super Special #22
9780939766116 The Death of Captain Marvel Marvel Graphic Novel #1
9780939766123 Elric Marvel Graphic Novel #2
9780939766130 Stan Lee presents the Marvel Comics illustrated version of Spider-Man 2. Marvel Illustrated Books
9780939766147 Stan Lee presents the Marvel Comics illustrated version of Star Wars 2: World of Fire Marvel Illustrated Books
9780939766154 Dreadstar Marvel Graphic Novel #3
9780939766161 His Master’s Voice In America. Ninety Years of Communications Pioneering and Progress: General Electric Co; First Edition edition (1991)
9780939766178 Smurfs #1
9780939766185 Stan Lee presents the Marvel Comics illustrated version of Daredevil, the man without fear!. Marvel Illustrated Books
9780939766192 The Dark Crystal The Official Comics Adaptation of the Jim Henson Epic Fantasy Adventure Film Marvel Super Special
9780939766208 New Mutants Marvel Graphic Novel #4
9780939766215 Star Slammers Marvel Graphic Novel #6
9780939766222 X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills Marvel Graphic Novel #5
9780939766239 The Dark Crystal repackaging of Marvel Super Special #24
9780939766246 Star Wars (Return of the Jedi) 9780517551578 = RH Value Publishing?
9780939766277 The Challenges of Krull : coloring and activity book
9780939766284 The Puzzles of Krull : coloring and activity book
9780939766291 Heathcliff at the circus : coloring book
9780939766314 Heathcliff, #1 cat at the show : coloring and activity book
9780939766321 Heathcliff our hero : coloring and activity book
9780939766345 Crystar Crystal Warrior Coloring Book the Tournament
9780939766383 Fantastic Four vs. the Frightful Four coloring book
9780939766390 The alphabet pet battles the X-Men : a Marvel super activity book
9780939766406 Marvel Super Heroes Super Activity Book
9780939766482 G.I.Joe a Real American Hero: The Trojan Gambit
9780939766499 Krull: The Storybook Based on the Film
9780939766505 GI Joe: Operation Disappearance A Mighty Marvel Storybook
9780939766512 G.I. Joe A Real American Hero: The Spy Eye! A Mighty Marvel Storybook
9780939766529 Heathcliff : the fish bandit A Big Looker Storybook
9780939766536 Heathcliff : the trickiest cat in town A Big Looker Storybook
9780939766543 The amazing Spiderman : the big top mystery A Big Looker Storybook
9780939766550 The Fantastic Four : the island of danger A Big Looker Storybook
9780939766567 Crystar Crystal Warrior The Origin of Crystar A Mighty Marvel Storybook
9780939766574 Crystar Crystal Warrior: To Capture the Magic Crystal A Mighty Marvel Storybook
9780939766581 Stan Lee Presents the Marvel Comics Illustrated Version of Star Wars, Return of the Jedi mass market paperback; repackaging of Marvel Super Special #27
9780939766598 Killraven Marvel Graphic Novel #7
9780939766604 Mighty Marvel Team-up Thrillers hardcover
9780939766666 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Coloring Book: The Crown of Rulership
9780939766680 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Coloring Activity Book: The Rescue of Ringlerun
9780939766697 The forest of enchantment Advanced Dungeons & Dragons storybook
9780939766703 The Treasure of time Advanced Dungeons & Dragons storybook
9780939766734 Heathcliff Coloring Book: The Haunted House
9780939766758 Frankenstein Berni Wrightson
9780939766765 Official Marvel Comics Try-out Book
9780939766772 Super Boxers Marvel Graphic Novel #8
9780939766789 The A-Team Storybook: Comics Illustrated
9780939766819 Futurians Marvel Graphic Novel #9
9780939766826 Heartburst Marvel Graphic Novel #10
9780939766840 The Marvel Super Heroes’ Christmas Coloring Book
9780939766901 The Amazing Spider-Man and Wolverine in The crime of the centuries Secret Wars; Coloring Activity Book
9780939766932 Spiderman’s Stamp Fun (Marvel Super Heroes: Secret Wars)
9780939766949 Marvel super heroes secret wars : the secret of Spider-Man’s shield! Sticker Adventures
9780939766956 Marvel Super Heroes Sticker Adventures Secret Wars The Tower of Doom! Sticker Adventures
9780939766963 X-Men Legends: The Dark Phoenix Saga #2
9780939766970 The power of Iron Man #3


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