March 29, 2008

Marvel Comics "No-Prize"

Stupid Question ™
Jan. 12, 2004
By John Ruch
© 2004

Q: What was the Marvel Comics “No-Prize”?
—Sean Scheiderer, Columbus, Ohio

A: The No-Prize was the embodiment of the humor, self-deprecation and fan interactivity that made Marvel Comics such an industry-shaking genius from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s.

It’s also a weird relic of that pre-Internet era. Today, the identity of the No-Prize would be instantly blathered all over the globe by 14-year-olds everywhere (as is being blathered by me). But back then, it was a frustrating, mystifying secret that Marvel editors stoutly refused to explain in print. Only the winners really knew.

In its fully evolved state, the No-Prize was given out to readers who wrote in to any individual Marvel Comics title’s letters-to-the-editor page and pointed out some error in continuity, logic or fact—and then offered an ad hoc, plausible explanation for the mistake, jokingly saving the editors any embarrassment.

With your question in mind, I dug through some of my old comic books in my parents’ basement over the holidays. Here’s a No-Prize award example from “The Incredible Hulk” No. 324 (Oct. 1986). Tip Baker of Chesterfield, Virginia wrote in to dsay of “Hulk” No. 321: “In all of this magnificent comic, there was only one glich. On page 12, panel 5, Wonder Man’s glasses are knocked off, but in following panels on the next page, he has them on. He didn’t have enough time to get them after they fell off, and Hawkeye’s explosive arrow probably would have destroyed them when it detonated on the Hulk. Never fear, though. I have the solution—while flying down to help Hawkeye, Wonder Man pulled out an extra pair he carries in case of just such emergencies. Do I get a No-Prize?”

Yes, he got one. “…[C]onsider yourself No-Prized for helping out with the great glasses controversy!” wrote then-editor Bob Harras.

As you might gather from this exchange, comic book fans are as nitpicky as their asinine movie-mistake-collecting brethren. The No-Prize was a brilliant way of dealing with such types. Instead of focusing on a sort of self-satisfied ruination of disbelief, the nitpickers were encouraged to expand on the fiction and actually add to the story rather than detract from it. All in good humor, no less.

Of course, the No-Prize also encouraged nitpicking. The vast majority of Marvel mail in those days was devoted to No-Prize requests. That same issue of “Hulk” had another reader chastising the editors for using the old quote about “soothing a savage breast” with the reader insisting the correct quote was about a “savage beast.” The editors blasted him with a Stupid Question-worthy mini-essay on William Congrieve’s “The Mourning Bride,” and concluded, “…[I]t looks like we saved ourselves a No-Prize.”

The No-Prize was the brainchild of the legendary Stan Lee, who established Marvel Comics in the ’60s and helped create groundbreaking characters such as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men.

Originally, the No-Prize was literally no prize. The reader’s name in print was the extent of the “prize.” However, in what became a driving force in the evolution of the No-Prize, many readers didn’t get the joke, and some No-Prize winners would write in demanding their prizes.

Thus, the No-Prize shifted to become an empty envelope with writing—often personalized—on the outside saying something to the effect of, “Your No-Prize is inside!” It was the ultimate ironic award, consisting of nothing but an envelope that, even more ironically, became a treasured item in itself to the recipient. Lee wrote the early envelopes himself, though eventually the awarding of No-Prizes became the province of individual book editors.

Even this irked some fans, and in later years at least some Marvel editors sent out deliberately silly No-Prize certificates.

It was easy to guess from the name that the No-Prize was nothing (originally, the term wasn’t even capitalized), but readers could never be sure because the editors always referred to actually sending out a prize, and were always mum when asked about the prize’s contents. At the same time, it wasn’t really a secret. Editor Mark Gruenwald actually wrote a mini-history of the No-Prize in the July 1986 issues of “The Avengers” and “Iron Man.” (He claimed Lee was inspired by unnamed other comic book companies that really did hand out good prizes for similar things; I haven’t found any examples of that, and it’s hard to believe in the notoriously skinflint comic trade.) But in those days, comic readership was relatively low and widely dispersed. The No-Prize mystique was easy to keep up.

The explained-a-mistake basis is the classic formulation of the No-Prize and the one that still lives in the term’s use by old comic book fans today. However, in practice, No-Prizes were awarded for a wide range of things, and sometimes arbitrarily. In the early days, Lee “gave” them out sardonically for people who simply nitpicked without offering explanations. He also gave No-Prizes to readers who simply made good suggestions about a given title. In the later years, as editors were deluged with No-Prize requests, some editors abandoned the explained-a-mistake policy and either refused to give out any at all, or gave them out to whoever asked for one.

By the late 1980s, Lee was long gone and Marvel was owned by the company of corporate takeover king Ronald Perelman, who drove Marvel into bankruptcy, both financial and artistic, by 1996. One of the first casualties of the corporate greed was the No-Prize, considered a silly, expensive extravagance to mail out. Even today, the concept has never really recovered.

But back in the glory days, Marvel even once gave itself a No-Prize—its one-off 1982 “No-Prize” book, a self-satire of its style and major characters.

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