For the sake of simplicity, I usually commemorate the 50th anniversary of a comic book or magazine based on the cover date, however, it has long been the practice of publishers to print and distribute periodicals several months ahead of those dates. One of the most famous individual books in the history of comic books, Fantastic Four #1, has a cover date of November, 1961, and November is when I will likely write a detailed post about that historic issue.
While others are proclaiming August 8 as the 50th anniversary of FF #1 “rolling off the presses” (it was likely printed a week earlier) and thus the birth of the Marvel Universe, I think it might be instructive to discuss why there is such a discrepancy between cover dates and the date comic books actually go on sale. The general practice by most comic book companies since the medium was created in the 1930s was to date issues with a month and year 2-3 months after it was printed and distributed. This practice allows comic books to continue appearing current to readers even after they have been on sale for several months. The cover date also tells newsstands when an unsold magazine can be removed from the stands and returned to the publisher (or, more often than not, be destroyed.)
Now, back to August 8, 1961 being the day FF #1 was “printed” or “published” or “hit newsstands”. The fact of the matter is that August 8 is just a ballpark estimate based on the most common date stamped or written on the covers by some news dealers and drugstore managers. Those stamps vary by when the individual copy made it to the point of sale. Some sellers on the West Coast wouldn’t receive their copies until September. Some sellers in New York received their copies a week before the accepted date of August 8 (See the copy below stamped Aug 3).
Putting a precise date to the start of the Marvel Universe is really not possible. One might even date it to the famous round of golf in 1960 where Marvel publisher Martin Goodman was first convinced that super teams were the future of comic books. I’m content to spend the next several months celebrating the first issue of the “World’s Greatest Comic Magazine”.