I grew up in New Haven County, a place which is known (among other things) as being the birthplace of American pizza, and home to some of the first if not finest pizza establishments in the country. Still, as a kid, I had a preference for the Pizza Hut in Cheshire, CT. It wasn't necessarily because of the quality of the pizza. The first time I recall going there was after winning a free personal pan pizza at school through the company's BookIt! promotion. I was already a voracious reader, and the idea that I could score myself a free pizza just for reading even more? Great!
But something else happened on one of those early trips as well. Pizza Hut had launched a new partnership with Marvel Comics to promote the X-Men franchise. This was right around the same time that X-Men: The Animated Series was launching on TV, and I went home that fateful evening with a belly full of cardboard-flavored pizza and a shiny new VHS tape containing the 2-part pilot episode of the cartoon, along with creator interviews featuring Stan Lee and Fabian Nicieza, amongst others. I also got a cool-ass cup with the Beast on it!
To say that night changed my life would be an understatement. Little did I realize at the time, however, that it also changed the comic book industry. Over at SKTCHD, writer David Harper has compiled an impressive history piece about the Pizza Hut X-Men promo, and how that marketing-driven initiative not only launched the careers of some now-legendary artists like Russell Dauterman and Chris Bachalo (it paid a lot better than actual comic work, too). The promo would end up changing the way Marvel business as well, as the company began to realize that there was a ripe market opportunity for them to license out their IP for merchandising and other similar cross-promotional events.
Artist Scott Koblish came up at Marvel as one of its vaunted art apprentices, dubbed Romita's Raiders in honor of the publisher's Art Director John Romita. But by the time this promotion hit, he was a freelancer mainly doing inks, including projects for Creative Services. While he was excited to work on this promotion because one of his earliest jobs was at his local Pizza Hut, the real draw was the money. Koblish recalled that inking a regular comic page at the time would get him $60, but some projects for Creative Services would earn him over $1,000. The difference in rates came down to who was paying the bills.
"It's Pizza Hut's advertising agency who we were working with, so we were working with advertising agency budgets, not comic budgets," Thomas said. "We definitely had more money to spend to get the stuff done, so it very rarely took more than one phone call to get an artist on board."
Moreshead said they were clear with Pizza Hut's agency that while they were happy to work with them, they were going to produce "Marvel art with Marvel artists." Their focus was on X-Men friendly artists from the beginning. As Thomas told me, "We were just picking up the phone and calling X-Men artists at that time." If those artists were busy, then they found stylistic matches to replace them.
That's why this initial wave included Andy Kubert, who had drawn issues of Uncanny X-Men before and was about to take over the adjectiveless X-Men title, and then-Excalibur artist Joe Madureira, as well as others who were stylistically flexible like Lee Weeks and Chris Bachalo. They either were known commodities to X-Men fans or could match the look of those who were.
"Pizza With All the X-Tras": The Story Behind the X-Men x Pizza Hut Promotion, 30 Years Later [David Harper / SKTCHD]