The No Prize is a reward given out to fans who get a letter printed in a Marvel comic, which points out a mistake within a series and comes up with a clever excuse for it being printed. Stan Lee would print the letter in a later edition and tell the reader they "valiantly won a No Prize", which was nothing.
The No Prize originally started out in 1964 as a joke from the staff to the readers. In Fantastic Four #26, Lee ran a contest asking readers to send in their definition of what The Marvel Age of Comics really meant. As part of the letter, Lee wrote "there will be no prizes, and therefore, no losers." The term soon stuck about the same time the Merry Marvel Marching Society started, and so Lee started giving away No Prizes to letter writers. At first, Lee would start up contests for No Prizes, asking readers questions and requesting their creative responses. One example asked readers for proof of whether the Sub-Mariner is a mutant or not. Winners would have their letters printed along with Lee congratulating them on getting a No Prize.
Later, Lee would give No Prizes out to whomever he felt deserved them in his Stan's Soapbox column, using the phrase "meritorious service to the cause of Marveldom" as justification. But some fans would write in literally demanding a No Prize for no real reason. Lee decided to take on a new approach. Other comic companies had given out prizes in the past for pointing out oversights and continuity errors in their books. So Lee started doing the same thing, and awarded No Prizes to people who found errors in the books. Which at the time was quite a feat since Marvel was well known for its continuity.
At first Lee hoped it would be a joke on nit-pickers whose only prize would be the fun of getting recognition for their efforts. The letters soon tripled as fans wrote in looking for errors in every comic they could, and suddenly the non-existent prize was in high demand. In 1967, Lee took the demand to a new level and had several Marvel envelopes printed up with special printing on the front indicating the recipient had won the No Prize, and was concealed in the envelope. The letters, of course, were empty. But even this was a problem as fans would write back asking where their prize was, even going so far as to say their prize must have fallen out of the envelope, not catching on to the joke.
As Lee started withdrawing from the letter writing, the rest of the Marvel's editorial staff were soon let in on the joke and were allowed to send out their own No Prizes to readers. However, with everyone in charge of their own set of books, they soon made their own rules up on how people would receive a No Prize. Daredevil editor Ralph Macchio would give them out to anyone who asked for one, while Mike Higgins wouldn't give any out at all. There was even one editor who gave them out to people who didn't ask for one.
The most vocal editor of the No Prizes was Mark Gruenwald, who started giving them out to people who not only pointed out an error, but also wrote up a clever explanation as to why it wasn't an error. However in July 1986, Gruenwald announced in his Mark's Remarks column that he would no longer give out No Prizes. The reason being that people were really nit-picking at everything with no interest in the story, and ultimately defeated the purpose behind the entire idea. Even citing one letter where a fan only wrote in to comment that Captain America's glove was yellow in one panel instead of red and that they deserved a No Prize.
By the late 1980's, Stan Lee was gone and Marvel was now owned by Ronald Perelman, the man who would eventually drive Marvel into bankruptcy. One of the first casualties of the new ownership was the No Prize, considered in one memo to be "a silly, expensive extravagance to mail out." Two attempts to bring it back came in the 1990's, but neither seemed to have the staying power of the original letters and both died within months due to low interest.
On July 31st, 2006, Marvel Executive Editor Tom Brevoort instituted a Digital No-Prize to be awarded for "Meritorious Service to Marveldom". The first of these was awarded on August 12th, 2006 to a group of Marvel fans who donated a large number of comics to U.S. service members stationed in Iraq. So far, no other No Prizes have been issued.
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