Collecting Roy Rockwood's Great Marvel Series

Jessica Amanda Salmonson

   

When Jack Vance gave his speech to the Science Fiction Writers of America upon receiving the Grand Master Award from his peers, he revealed his influences as a science fiction writer, & spoke foremost of Roy Rockwood, alongside Jules Verne, H. G. Wells & Edgar Rice Burroughs. I wonder how many of the eight-score writers present in that audience had ever heard of Roy Rockwood. Some few certainly had. And for those few who were in the know, it must have been a rare & satisfying moment to hear one of the great modern genre writers tip his hat to, of all authors, a Stratemeyer Syndicate house name for boys' serials.

The name Roy Rockwood appeared on many series books, but the two most famous were Bomba the Jungle Boy & the Great Marvel Series. The lion's share of the latter were actually written by Howard Garis. Though Garis is commonly assumed to have written the Bomba books as well, the actual author was John Duffield, who as it happens wrote just one of the nine Great Marvel books. Garis wrote under a vast array of pseudonyms & house names, plus all that he published under his own name, including the still-famed "Uncle Wiggily" books but also the rare "Rocket Riders Series" (1933-1934) which is very much like the Great Marvel Series. In four volumes, the Rocket Riders developed a sled-rocket to explore polar regions, a rocket-car to seek a lost city in a desert, a rocket-boat to cross vast oceans, & a sky-rocket to rise above the clouds. A fifth volume announced but never issued would've been a submarine rocket, & I can't help but wonder if Garis mightn't next have trumped up a rocket-method of drilling into the earth's interior. The four books had great dustwrappers too. Anyone who collects the Great Marvels is certainly never going to pass on copies of the Rocket Riders, though they are quite a bit harder to find.

Collecting the Great Marvel Series can be a long-term challenge, since one could spend a lifetime trying to upgrade to dustjacketed rarities. Yet it is never a frustrating challenge, for the books are gorgeous even without the painfully rare dustwrappers, & anyone with a bit of effort can expect to complete a beautiful set in the display-worthy decorative cloth bindings. Of the nine volumes, #7 through 9 (especially 9) are quite hard to find but turn up often enough that no persistent seeker need fail. The first six exist aplenty & you're bound to find a couple of them right away, even if possibly grubby ones at first, such as you may wish to upgrade over time.

The only "tragedy" of an achievable pursuit is one may finish the gathering process too soon. But for completists, that'll be no problem; the task can be rendered all but unachievable for the obsessive who like the process never to end. There are so many binding variations especially on the first six titles that no one has yet documented them sufficiently, nor given much of a stab at priority of binding states. And while I frequently see "First Editions" offered by booksellers, I know they're blowing smoke through their hats. To establish priority of bindings would require seeing very many copies indeed, & as many dustwrappers as possible which are a bit easier to date but vastly harder to obtain, plus inspect such clues as gift-inscriptions, number of plates colated with colors of bindings, & sharpness of the text impressions (the plates wear down with time & the text gets thicker) again colated with the binding specifics. If anyone did undertake such a task it would not be duplicating past achievements & it would fill a definite void.

Another aspect of such a collection is a subsidiary group of "Roy Rockwood" tales that are at least tangentially related to the Great Marvel Series. This subsidiary cluster is the Deep Sea Series that began with The Wizard of the Sea (1900). This was published six years before the Great Marvel Series began, & a second one also appeared prior to any Great Marvel book, namely The Rival Ocean Divers (1905). These fantastic-voyage & deep sea adventure books were to take on their own life concurrent with the Great Marvel series & from entirely different publishers. Still, it seems certain the house name of Roy Rockwood was selected for the Great Marvel stories because of a similarity to the earlier Rockwood series of fantastic voyages. And if a Great Marvel collector scores ideal copies of all nine Great Marvel books, yet does not wish to give up the hunt, one could do worse than to track down the Deep Sea Series.

   

Great Marvel books were issued by Cupples & Leon, perhaps the greatest of all imprints for vintage juvenile series books. C&L like so many series books publishers intentionally never indicated editions. As I pointed out above, the wide variety of color combinations of cloth & embossed pictorial binding especially for the first six of the nine volumes provide no way of telling priority of editions. The "lists to self" evidence of a first edition which is liked by many an amateur bookseller terribly unreliable, nearly to the point of being balderdash. The priority of the dustwrappers is easier, but the dustwrappers are so rarely on the books that it's ultimately only a little helpful. In the absence of a dustwrapper, the following four rules-of-thumb will inform anyone at the very least if they have an early or late C&L printing:

1) The ads at the back of the book give the first clue as to how many in the series had already appeared at the time of publication of the copy in hand, though this evidence is not definitive. As for the list on the copyright page, it is so close to meaningless that it should be ignored.

2) Early printings have embossed color artwork on the front cloth rather than a simple line drawing.

3) The earliest printings have four illustration plates; later printings have decreasing numbers of plates until only a frontispiece remains.

4) Earliest printings have crisp sharp text, whereas text in later printings begin to look a little murky.

The pre-1911 dustwrappers on volumes one through five are exceedingly fragile hence few survive; they are black ink on thin uncoated terra cota paper & valuable because of extreme scarcity but not as interesting as the embossed pictorial cloth itself. A second dustwrapper was the second one for volumes one through five but the first dustwrapper for volume six. It is usually printed black but sometimes with one or another color on white coated paper & the artwork is the same as that embossed on the book. The third dustwrapper used for volumes one through eight (making it the first dustwrapper for #7 and #8) is a color pictorial on white stock; the front shows the two lads in a space ship peering through a portal into space. Finally all nine were issued with a more elaborate color pictorial of the boys again in the space ship in action poses at the controls & with a rocket ship on the spine. A detail from this jacket decorates the head of this page. It is the only dw type for #9 & indicates the last printings of the earlier volumes. Even this final dustwrapper is pretty scarce & none are ever encountered affordably. Fortunately the books are beautiful without dustwrappers thanks to colorful choices of cloth & inked embossed pictorials different for each binding. So it is not necessary to spend yourself into debt to find exciting copies.

Though priority of the myriad binding states is rarely certain, the earliest printings of volumes one through eight had a frontispiece & three more interior plates on coated paper, but later on they had only the frontispiece which was not always the same plate as had been used for the frontispiece of the earliest printings. It was typical of publishers of the time to print up very many more illustration plates than they needed & store them for insertion into future editions. So it is common that as time goes by & new impressions mount up, the original plates start to run out of stock. First one & then two of the plates will run out, & there will be fewer illustrations as editions progress. At some point whatever remains will be used for frontispieces & it won't always be the same plate but will be whatever remained to hand. Volume #9 of the set only ever had a frontispiece, however.

Extremely clean & bright copies of the embossed bindings can be quite valuable. $45 is not uncommon through when prices get much above $25 they should be in excellent condition indeed. Tatty copies by rights should not cost much though of course some booksellers will hornswoggle people with such excuses as "A book that old, you gotta expect the binding's been glued back on a bit clumsily." The earliest volumes with four plates instead of just the frontis sometimes have their values jacked upward considerably, & if it's a fine copy this is certainly justifiable. It's just that with badly worn cloth or broken hinges or even the frontispiece lacking, they're not worth a thing. Somewhat acceptable $5 to $25 mediocre copies are still possible to locate if you're out hunting everywhere in bookshops. They're never so cheap when found on the web & you have to be very careful of copies described on-line by diletantes; I've never been able to decide if they're that crooked or that ignorant but you will learn to deal when possible with established specialists if you buy much on-line, as the percentage of disgusting copies sold as "Very Good to Fine" is truly appalling.

Really only #7, 8 and 9 are sufficiently scarce that there's any reason to settle (at least temporarily) for a poor copy if it has a low price. Of course, if you can find any of them in dustwrapper it would not be untoward if that copy cost $100, & I've rarely seen dustswrappers on any C&L printing offered for less than $75 which I'd regard a good deal. There just aren't that many with dustwrappers offered in any given year & generally speaking the booksellers aren't making much on their better copies, even at such high prices, as they're not items you can pick up cheaply to sell dearly. Dealers buy them dear because they're too darned splendid to pass up & then price them dearer still, but not to a degree you'd call a serious profit.

Whitman Publishing reprinted volumes 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9. They did not issue numbers 1, 2 or 7. The six they did issue had a different pictorial dustwrapper for each book so are quite desirable in dustwrapper, pricing from specialty dealers in the $45 range or higher, even though most people do prefer the embossed Cupples & Leon bindings even over the dustwrappered Whitmans (except collectors of the Whitman imprint, who are legion). The Whitman bindings per se are ordinary & there is no frontispiece either, so without the dustwrapper (example at right) they're not appealing though could serve as stop-gap reading copies.

For a while series book collecting was restricted to two types of people: nostalgic old folks who were dying off so no one was left to collect vintage juveniles at all, & faux "antique" mall type booksellers who find shredded copies & try to sell them at fine copy prices. But in recent years — & it may be partly the internet that spread the word & increased interest — more people who love books have embraced juvenile series books as beautiful, charming, entertaining, & providing imaginative windows into other eras. Pulp magazines have already gone through a similar transformation, with good & bad impacts. Pulps when no one collected them you could pick them up by the boxfull for peanuts, but now that many people want them, they're often a hundred dollars apiece & up. It spoils a hobby if no one but a few rich bastards can afford it! But when an item is valued highly, it is more likely to be preserved. So yeah, there's good & bad. The Great Marvel books are fast heading in that "costly treasure" direction, with some few dealers testing the upper reaches of what people will spend. But we're not quite at the point where prices are universally inflated & an owner wouldn't even dare touch one's perishable treasure. It is not yet necessary to mortgage your soul to obtain pleasing copies, & it's still acceptable to open the books & read them without worrying about getting eye-tracks all over the pages.

Thanks to James Keeline for critiquing this article, suggesting additions & corrections.
See also the The Great Marvel Series: A Discursive Bibliography.



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