In the mid-1970s, following the box office success of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there was a short resurgence of public interest in Unidentified Flying Objects, more commonly known as UFOs. Not since their 1950s heyday had those mysterious lights in the sky been so all over the media and, never ones to buck a trend, it was inevitable that Marvel Comics would jump enthusiastically upon that bandwagon. Marvel published a comic strip adaptation of Spielberg’s movie as a Marvel Super Special, but enough is never too much in the world of comic books and Marvel Preview, the magazine style comic book that introduced Star-Lord to the world (more on him coming soon), joined the party in issue 13 with The UFO Connection, an altogether darker view of human contact with alien beings. British readers might recall it as a back-up strip in Star Wars Weekly and remember that crushing feeling after the last instalment, thinking ‘surely this can’t be how it ends…’
The UFO Connection was the brainchild of David Anthony Kraft, who waxes lyrical about his own childhood close encounters in an enthusiastic editorial, and it was illustrated by Marvel veteran Herb Trimpe. The story is told from the viewpoint of a young girl called Sissie who is on the run from murderous alien beings that are pursuing her inventor father Tom Chojnacki, who has created some kind of self-powering pyramid which is a technology that the aliens would rather remain secret. In a series of out-of-body experiences, Tom sees that the UFOs and their occupants have been around for thousands of years, wiping out anyone who gets close to the truth. With all its pyramid power references, there’s a strong streak of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods in this story, which was probably one of the better-known texts at the time. In the 70s, an unhealthy interest in this sort of thing was seen as harmless crankery, before the Internet came along and weaponised the conspiracy theory.
It turns out that Tom’s portable-pyramid-powered invention not only poses a threat to the aliens’ long-gestating plans to harvest humanity for psychic energy, it also proves the ultimate defence against them. Basically, when Tom and Sissie are inside the portable pyramid, the nasty aliens can’t touch them. Our heroes travel to Egypt, reasoning that they can use the power of the Great Pyramid at Giza to drive away the alien parasites for good. Safe inside the portable pyramid, Tom and Sissie both see a horrifying vision of the aliens extracting the psychic energy from abducted human beings to ‘feed’ their newborn children, as they have become unable to reproduce by normal means. It’s all rather grim, but it only gets worse as Tom is gunned down by the aliens and his daughter is left trapped in the pyramid; the aliens can’t touch her, but neither can she leave. And that’s the shocking ending I mentioned earlier.
The cover of Marvel Preview #13 proudly proclaims The UFO Connection as a ‘novel-length graphic story’, though at 42 pages it’s more of a novella. It could have done with being a bit longer or maybe spread over more than one issue, but that’s not really a fair criticism; it zips along at an admirable pace and never gets boring. The artwork by Herb Trimpe (finishing split between Klaus Janson and Pablo Marcos) is nice and old school and actually benefits from the black and white printing. Although it was traditional for standard comics to be printed in colour, the printing process of the time was messy and didn’t always work to the advantage of the strip. Being aimed at an older audience, Marvel Preview didn’t feel the need to be colourful and that really benefitted a great many of the strips that appeared in its pages. Growing up with UK reprints, I’m used to seeing Marvel Comics in black and white anyway, so it’s not really a big deal to me.
Marvel Preview was a Marvel Magazine; these were bigger format publications aimed at a more mature audience that printed their comic strips in black and white and often contained text features alongside the strip art. Although they were technically Marvel books and featured a great many Marvel characters, they were published by Magazine Management Co, a company that published everything from puzzle books to pornography. Other Marvel Magazines includes Doc Savage – Man of Bronze, Savage Sword of Conan and Rampaging Hulk and because they were classed as ‘magazines’ rather than ‘comic books’, they fell outside the purview of the Comics Code. Consequently, The UFO Connection contains minor swearing and blaspheming which would never have been allowed under the Comics Code. Other titles exploited this loophole even more, such as Dominic Fortune in Marvel Preview #2, which featured nudity.
Issue 13 contains more feature material than most. You might look at the cover and wondering what the hell musician John Lennon, crime writer Don Pendleton and then-current President Jimmy Carter have to do with UFOs, but a quick look at the feature material will answer that question. Lennon and Carter both claimed to have seen UFOs, according to the ‘Special Reports’ by Marvel Preview regular Doug Moench. John Lennon claimed to have seen a UFO from his apartment window in New York City, according to his feature, though he felt the need to point out that he was ‘very straight’ at the time, in case anyone assumed he’s been hitting the Magic Smarties. Don Pendleton contributes a humorous short story about first contact called All Heart and there’s also a review of the book Project Bluebook by Brad Steiger and an exclusive excerpt from the book The Cosmic Trigger Has Just Been Pulled by Robert Anton Wilson.
The Marvel Magazines are an intriguing document of a time when the comics industry was in serious trouble and trying lots of different things to keep going. As has been well-documented elsewhere, if it hadn’t been for the success of their Star Wars title, Marvel Comics may well have followed Dell, Gold Key and Charlton into publishing oblivion. The adverts in the back of the magazine for replica handguns and genuine flick-knives might confirm all our suspicions that the 1970s (and possibly America) were another planet, but there’s a lot about The UFO Connection that stands up well today. Kids in 2020 might not be as au fait with Close Encounters of the Third Kind as they are with Star Wars or Back to the Future, so it’s unlikely that The UFO Connection would translate well to a modern audience, but to those of us who were there, it’s a fun reminder of a time when UFO spotting was a diverting subject to read about and not a lifestyle choice that comes with a massive broadband bill and a matching tinfoil hat.
Keep watching the skies… and stay inside the pyramid!!