Smash! : The Odhams Years – Part 4: Crisis in 1968

Summary:

‘Smash!’ was the most successful of the five ‘Power Comics’ published in Britain in the 1960s by Odhams Press, a division of IPC. Targeted at boys aged 10 to 14, it was published from 1966 to 1971. This article is part of an analysis of the causes and consequences of the comic’s relaunch in 1969; a case-study of the economic pressures affecting the UK publishing industry in that period.

Closure of the Power Comics

Following the initial success of Wham in 1964, Odhams launched four more Power Comics during 1966 and ’67, including Smash, only to close them in quick succession: merging each in turn into the survivors, until by 1969 only Smash remained. Whereas 1968 began with all five Power Comics apparently flourishing, by the year’s end only Smash was still being published. Even the sleepiest of readers began to notice that something was seriously wrong, as the increasingly frantic series of mergers resulted in ever more ludicrous titles, culminating in the astonishing Smash and Pow incorporating Fantastic (commonly spoofed as Smash, Pow, Wham, incorporating Fantastic and Terrific).

The question is why, in a limited market such as the UK, they took such a big risk as to launch five titles (which in hindsight looks an unwise decision by the Odhams management), if it was so quickly obvious the market could only support one. The answer lies in the economic crisis of 1968 that hit the British economy, resulting in the devaluation of the Pound. The economic chaos began with a Sterling crisis in Britain in 1967, leading to devaluation in the November. There then followed a crisis for the U.S. dollar in March 1968 which had a cascade effect on the international economic system: sending first the French franc and then the West German deutschmark into devaluation, and culminating in a new Sterling crisis in Britain in November 1968.

The fall in the value of the Pound against the U.S. dollar significantly increased the cost of publishing the American superhero strips, which had to be paid for in dollars, and raised the daunting spectre of further increases if the Pound fell in value yet again. Increasing the cover price of the Power Comics to compensate was impossible because of stiff competition, so the fall in the value of Sterling made the American strips unaffordable.

The toughness of the competition is apparent from examining other contemporary titles. The first issue of its stablemate Fantastic, published in February 1967, cost 9d for 40 pages (due to its very high content of American superhero strips), a cover price which forced Fantastic to close within 18 months. Terrific, having the same high content of American material, also had a high cover price of 9d, and closed even quicker. By contrast, the comics Dandy and Beano published by the rival DC Thomson organisation sold at a cover price of 3d. Fantastic and Terrific cost three times as much, which (even with double the number of pages, compared to many DC Thomson titles) proved unsustainable. This is not surprising, given that Wham and Pow each peaked at a cover price of 7d, and even that proved unsustainable.

Smash had launched in February 1966 with a cover price of 7d for its 28 pages. By March 1969, although its cover price had not changed, circumstances had conspired to increase its page count, such that each issue now contained 36 pages. In fact the page count had jumped overnight from 24 pages to 36 pages (a fifty percent increase), with a consequent sharp rise in production costs, and hence a marked decline in profit-per-copy.

The tipping point was issue 144, in which Smash, Pow and Fantastic were merged into a single title. The recently created Smash and Pow lost its Daredevil and Spider-Man strips, which together had comprised a full third of each 24 page issue, but now had to accommodate both Thor and Fantastic Four from Fantastic, plus a whole slew of new British adventure strips (which were being added in preparation for the comic’s impending transition to solely-British content).

All this could not be achieved within the standard Smash format of 24 pages. So IPC now “bit the bullet” and increased the page count, in a single bound, by fifty percent — a necessity if they were to achieve their intention of reproducing with Smash the successful formula which was buoying-up their most popular titles, Lion and Valiant, both of which were 36-pagers.

The competitive nature of the UK’s publishing industry meant margins were thin: a minimum number of sales each week were needed to reach break-even point, and the lower the cover price, the greater was the number of sales needed to reach that point; but the higher the cover price, the fewer were the number of sales that could actually be achieved.

The juvenile readers (or their parents) might be able to afford two or three comics a week, but by publishing five Power Comics IPC were pricing themselves out of the market. For the situation in Britain was not like that in America, where, with comics published just once a month, a child might afford five titles. In Britain, comics were published weekly.

Under those conditions the Power Comics were effectively competing with each other (a factor IPC was certainly aware of, as the letters pages in Smash, in 1968, actually carried readers’ complaints that they couldn’t afford all five Power titles); and the Power Comics were also competing with IPC’s other titles, including Lion, Valiant and Buster, potentially dragging the Group’s entire line into bankruptcy. Rationalisation, by closing some of the titles, would produce an overall benefit, as it would dramatically cut IPC’s production costs. Although it would mean fewer titles, as IPC’s comics were actually competing against each other it ought to result in better sales for the survivors. In theory, there would be no overall loss of sales or revenue, provided readers switched from the closing titles to surviving IPC ones (rather than to rival DC Thomson ones).

Another factor Odhams had not anticipated was the distribution of American comic books within the UK. Although this had always been a consideration, the volume of such comics arriving in Britain had traditionally been small, and their distribution haphazard. In 1968, distribution and quantity suddenly underwent a marked improvement. Odhams’ black-and-white Marvel reprints in their Power Comics range suddenly faced serious competition from four-colour Marvel and DC originals, and this began to harm sales.

In the turbulent economic conditions, any part of IPC’s business which was loss-making had no future. Standard industry practice was to close a comic or magazine if its revenues dipped towards the break-even point; publishers did not wait for a title to actually incur losses, if they could help it. Hence, merely to anticipate losses on the other four titles (Pow, Wham, Fantastic and Terrific) was enough to doom them. And the closures represented a major cost-cutting exercise, reducing the ongoing production costs on the Power Comics line by four-fifths.

As for actual losses incurred due to the sudden and unexpected nature of the problem, and the inability to quickly terminate the long-term contracts with the Americans, Smash as sole survivor couldn’t hope to generate enough income on its own to meet these. But it didn’t need to. The fortunate circumstance that the Power Comics were all published by Odhams Press Ltd, a subsidiary company with limited liability, meant that it was possible to ring-fence all debts on the Odhams publications within that one company, thus preventing any losses affecting the rest of the IPC Group (since IPC’s other titles were all published by other IPC subsidiaries). Accordingly, with effect from 1 January 1969 Smash was transferred to IPC Magazines Ltd, a new IPC subsidiary formed during 1968, leaving Odhams Press with no continuing titles, and Smash started again from scratch.

Despite being the longest survivor, and inheriting many popular strips from the other four titles, Smash was only a limited success. It was plainly on shakey ground: for, hard on the heels of the closure of the other titles, in the spring of 1969 IPC quickly made extensive changes to it, dropping the last remaining Marvel superhero strips, to shed the expense of the licensing fee for using them (having already dropped Batman), and dropping many other strips too.

In consequence of the decision to discontinue the American reprints, as each Power Comic had closed its superhero strips were dropped. Only in the case of Fantastic, where the existing contract with Marvel had some months to run, were those strips transferred to the replacement, the merged Smash incorporating Fantastic, until the contract expired in March 1969.

Smash then introduced a new cover feature, new strips, and free gifts. In all but name it was a new comic. Even so, it required yet another major shakeup 12 months later, in the spring of 1970, when further changes of editorial policy were imposed by new owners Reed International, who had bought out IPC that year. This resulted, among other changes, in the dropping of the newly introduced ‘Warriors of the World’ cover feature in favour of a new lead serial: an adventure series entitled ‘The Thirteen Tasks of Simon Test’.

Within the British market, boys’ comics for the age group which was too old for titles such as Beano, Dandy and Sparky tended to focus around adventure, sport and war (in titles such as Lion and Valiant), or humour (in titles such as Buster). In abandoning its superheroes, Smash sought to attract readers of both types, by offering traditional adventure as well as humour.

To place these changes in context, the Power Comics were not the only casualties of the turmoil at IPC in 1969. Hulton’s long-running adventure comic Eagle was also cancelled, merging with Fleetway’s Lion from 2 May 1969. The merged comic was known briefly as Lion and Eagle, but quickly reverted to simply Lion. The humour comic, Giggle, aimed at the slightly younger market dominated by Fleetway’s Buster, was also dropped, being absorbed by Buster in the spring of 1969 to form Buster and Giggle. As ever, the name change lasted only long enough to absorb the discontinued comic’s readership, with the reference to Giggle failing to see out the year; by December the title had reverted to simply Buster once more. Buster, like Smash, also now became a publication of the Group’s newest subsidiary, IPC Magazines Ltd.

 

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About StephenPoppitt

Jimmy Clitheroe site webmaster: http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/bridip/clitheroe
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