So I asked Stan Lee, "where did the idea of Bullpen Bulletin page, one of the fundaments of Marvel Comics come from?" He told me:
"When I was a kid, there was this series of hardcover juvenile adventure books featuring a character named Jerry Todd. They were something like the Hardy Boys, but they had a lot of humor mixed in with the adventure. And at the very end of each book, the publisher printed letters from the readers as well as responses from the author himself. It was so informal, so warm...it made me feel like I knew these guys and they cared about what their readers thought. I was surprised at the time other books didn't see what a great idea this was. I don't know if I consciously remembered those books when I set out to do the Bullpen page years later, or if I was unconsciously influenced and only afterwards realized where I got the idea from. I do know that talking to the readers informally and indirectly seemed like the natural thing to do."
There you have it, another secret behind comics, from the man who wrote the book on secrets behind the comics.
In the beginning, there were letters pages-- or "letters sections", as Stan liked to call 'em. Starting with FANTASTIC FOUR #3 (cover dated March 1962, it came out in late 1961), Stan ran a page of fan mail in his flagship title and, with FF #11, expanded it to two pages. With issue #13, a "Special Announcements Section" appeared at the end of the second page of letters to respond to general fan mail topics and alert early Marveldom to other titles in the line. (Most titles wouldn't get letters pages of their own for a few years, so I'm tracking the Bullpen Bulletins' genesis through the pages of FF.)
By FF #24, this Special Announcements Section often took up a whole column of the second page of letters, and by FF #33 (December 1964), "The Mighty Marvel Checklist" appeared imbedded within the "Special Announcements Section." Then with FANTASTIC FOUR #41 (August 1965), the page before the letters section, which had been an ad for Marvel's first fan club, the Merry Marvel Marching Society (MMMS), was labeled for the first time (ta-daa!) "The Merry Marvel Bullpen Page." Still hand-lettered and mostly featuring information and coupons for cool Marvel t-shirts, this first Bullpen Page had typeset names of 25 MMMS members. The checklist and special announcements were still on the letters pages.
Then with FF #45 (and all the other Marvel titles cover dated December 1965) the first modern "Marvel Bullpen Bulletins" page appeared with tidbits of news, the checklist (containing a mere nine other titles), a list of 25 more MMMS members, plus an ad for an FF t-shirt and Marvel stationery. In FF #46, there was a subheading beneath the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins banner: "More Nutty News and Notes from One Marvel Madman to Another!" Within a matter of issues, the typeset text began to dominate the page, crowding out all but the tiniest of illustrations. Here was a page of information presented in Stan's uniquely informal style, filled with straight-from-the-hip chat from The Man himself, using all sorts of pop lingo and cool catch phrases such as "true believers", "no-prizes", "'nuff said", "frantic one", "Brand Ecch", and "Make mine Marvel", as well as the occasional Latin quote!
With the April 1966 edition in FF #49, alliterative subtitles began to adorn the Bullpen page, the first reading "More mirthful, monumental, mind-staggering memoranda from your Marvel madmen!" (My favorite read: "A profound potpurri of perplexing pronoucements and preposterous philosophy, all portending practically nothing!")
In FANTASTIC FOUR #63 (June 1967) the first ever "Stan's Soapbox" appeared on the Bullpen Bulletins page, where our Leader waxed sincere on the topic of "The Marvel Philosophy". Here Stan really connected with his audience. The soapbox was somehow more specific and more intimate than Stan's writing anywhere else. The Bullpen Bulletins Page was the definitive place for everything in the medium that was uniquely Stan.
But all things had to come to an end, and, with the September 1972 Bullpen Page (FANTASTIC FOUR #126), Stan preempted all items (except the Checklist) to make room for an expanded Soapbox explaining how he was not only stepping down as editor of the whole Marvel line, but he would also be foregoing all regular comics writing. Not stated (but certainly implied) was that the Bullpen Bulletins page-- with the exception of an occasional Stan's Soapbox, of course-- would pass on to his successor. Through the 70's, the Bullpen Bulletins more or less followed the template established by Stan, and featured and alliterative subheading, various news and promotional items, a checklist (albeit an abbreviated one, since Marvel was now producing almost three times the number of titles it was in Stan's heyday), and more-or-less regular Stan's Soapboxes.
With the June 1977 issues (FF #183) the last alliterative subheading appeared ("Zounds! A Zealful Zetetic of Zestful Zanies to Zap the Zeitgeist") and, in the issue after, a listing of Marvel's editorial staff-- a mere 14 in number-- appeared in the masthead. This listing lasted until June 1978 (FF #196), ending the month before my name would have had to have been annexed to the masthead. (Coincidence? Conspiracy? You decide.) From 1978 through most of '80's the Bullpen Page underwent various format changes. January 1980 (FF #214) brought back the Checklist, while #215 dropped all the items in favor of just Stan's Soapbox and the Checklist, a format that continued for almost a year before paid advertisements ate into the magazine's editorial page count and the BBP mysteriously vanished for a number of months. With FF #238 (January 1982), the BBP was back, minus the checklist and Stan's Soapbox, and signed for the first time by the pages' author, then-editor in chief Jim Shooter.
Throughout most of the '80's, all Stanisms of the previous two decades were eradicated in favor of a new idiosyncratic tone for the page. There were various new innovations, such as guest columns written by various freelancers, the Hype Box, and tongue-in-cheek photo features (editors wearing hats, and the Hunk of the Month). The Checklist was expanded to fit the number of titles Marvel was publishing. FF #299 (February '87) featured the last of this style '80's Bullpen page and, after three months with no Bulletins, I took over as editor of the page, a position I've held ever since.
My writing staff and I have put that poor page through a lot in an effort to regain a consistent voice and the best balance of features-- way too much to fit into this month's column. Tell you what, if enough of you request it, I'll convince my editor to let me write a behind the scenes look at the Bullpen Bulletins Page as it stands today. Till then, shoot the bull!