The Tomy-created toys first appeared across the Marvel weeklies and monthlies in January 1985 in a four-page insert in SPIDER-MAN 620, INDIANA JONES MONTHLY 5 and RETURN OF THE JEDI 84. By bizarre luck, I acquired a back issue of INDIANA JONES with the original Marvel paperwork still attached (it must have been - at some point - a Marvel file copy) and I posted that here.
All concerned obviously deemed it a success as the experiment was repeated, with a second three-page self-contained story (the fourth page was always a guide to the toys) in September, by which time there had been several changes to the line. MARVEL SUPER HEROES SECRET WARS had launched, the (gasping) Spider-man weekly was now labouring under the name SPIDEY COMIC and Indy's monthly had closed. The second insert appeared in SECRET WARS 12, SPIDEY COMIC 653 (where, in a further sign of desperation and curtailed budgets, panels were also used as the issue's cover) and RETURN OF THE JEDI 117.
Both of the one-shots focused on the mysterious being known as the Namer, an alien dweller of the planet Zoidstar whose main purpose, other than to wander the desert-like surface in a morose fashion, seemed to be to name the various giant warring mechanical creatures who roamed the surface.
The basic premise of the Zoids is that they were giant alien war machines, controlled by android pilots, which were divided into two opposing forces: the Blue (good) and Red (bad) factions. They then spent their days blowing each other to kingdom-come in a holdover from an ancient war.
Presumably everyone was pleased with the two pilot instalments, and Marvel were keen to have an advertiser-funded strip on the books, as a regular feature was added to the pages of SECRET WARS from the 19th issue (9 November 1985). The debut coincided with the beginning of the new 24-page, full-colour format (a standard for the weeklies, beginning with THE GET ALONG GANG, during this period).
To broaden the format of the strip, and create characters that readers might actually care about, the first episode introduced the surviving crew and convicts from a prison ship that, following a collision, is space-wrecked on the surface. The Namer quickly turns up to befriend them and bring them up-to-speed on the mechanical creations they encounter.
After a limited run (issues 19-26) through to the end of the year (all reprinted in the first COLLECTED COMICS, below), Marvel put the strip on hiatus whilst it prepared its new home: the rebooted SPIDER-MAN AND ZOIDS, launched in March '86.
As the only UK-originated strip in an otherwise all-reprint title, the Zoids strip was the star attraction throughout the weekly's year-long run. So much so that M-UK hatched plans to launch a Zoids solo monthly in the US format. With the strip moving on again, Marvel announced that Spidey would be unable to support a title by himself (!) and, for the first time since 1972, Marvel's corporate mascot didn't have a regular slot in a British title. That situation - incredibly - remained until the launch of THE COMPLETE SPIDER-MAN in late 1990.
Unfortunately, for reasons not entirely clear (licensing problems? a sudden drop in sales? retailer resistance? a lack of interest from the States?), the new launch was abandoned at the last minute (although that didn't entirely end Marvel's association with the warrior machines).
The ZOIDS COLLECTED COMICS, in addition to allowing Marvel to run the same strips again to double their bang-for-their-buck, initially allowed SM&Z readers to catch-up with the story so far by compiling the SW instalments into one issue. Three more specials followed, drawing on material from the early issues of SM&Z. Unfortunately, the demise of the planned monthly also killed the CC after the fourth edition, leaving the bulk of the strips (including some penned by Grant Morrison) only available in back issues of the weekly.
The strip, which had a rotating creative team, is well worth seeking out as it becomes much more creative than its thin premise would suggest. In retrospect, its obvious that the creative team were liberally borrowing ideas from a number of certificate 18 movies (ALIENS and THE TERMINATOR spring immediately to mind) and reworking them for an audience that would be largely unaware of the source material.
These are, to date (and - lets be honest - I doubt that will ever change), the only reprints of the strip on either side of the Atlantic. Which is a great shame.
M-UK also published a rather nice ZOIDS ANNUAL around this time. I've also seen, in ebay, a second volume (which appears to reuse the cover from SM&Z 21). It sold for a crazy high amount but - frankly - I'm a little dubious of its authenticity. I've never seen it plugged in the comics nor mentioned anywhere else on line or in print. Buyer beware... unless you know otherwise!