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Marvel Comics


Martin Goodman was a publisher of pulp magazines—inexpensive collections of prose short stories packaged under illustrated covers—who, in the 1930s, oversaw a periodicals line including Complete Western Book, Marvel Science Stories, and Star Detective (the latter of which, in a 1937 edition, featured a tale with the prophetic title The X-Man). In the late 1930s Frank Torpey, representing a consortium of popular fiction authors and illustrators calling themselves Funnies, Inc., persuaded Goodman to enter a promising new entertainment medium: comic books. Goodman's first effort was Marvel Comics #1 (1939), an anthology title spotlighting the adventures of the Angel (not the version who would appear decades later in the company's X-Men title), the jungle hero Ka-Zar, the Western character the Masked Raider, Bill Everett's Sub-Mariner (listed on the cover as Submariner), and Carl Burgos' Human Torch, who was depicted on the cover melting through a steel wall. The issue sold extremely well, and Goodman's company, calling itself Timely Publications (or Timely Comics), was now in the comic-book business. An important editor was Joe Simon, who also wrote and drew many of the publisher's earliest efforts.

After the success of competitor DC Comics' Superman and Batman, new superheroes inundated the marketplace as an exponentially expanding arena of publishers scurried for a piece of the pie. Timely experimented with new characters, most of which failed to connect with an audience: The Blue Blaze, Flexo the Rubber Man, the Phantom Reporter, and Timely's first superteam, the 3 Xs, were so short-lived that they escape mention in many historical volumes. Goodman struck gold, however, whenever he highlighted the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner. And when he paired them in a three-part summer 1940 serial in Marvel Mystery Comics, the superhero crossover was born, and circulation exploded, giving birth to two new ongoing series: The Human Torch (Fall 1940) and Sub-Mariner (Spring 1941). In late 1940 Goodman hired his wife's young cousin as an editorial assistant to help manage Timely's growing line. This seemingly nepotistic choice proved to be the most important personnel decision Goodman ever made: The teenager was Stanley Martin Lieber, who, as Stan Lee, would one day be the publisher's driving force.

In March 1941, as Adolf Hitler's campaign of conquest was pushing the world into war, editor/writer Simon and artist Jack Kirby introduced a new superhero comic that helped distinguish Timely as one of the major publishers. Simon recalled, in Les Daniels' Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics (1991), We were looking for a villain first, and Hitler was the villain. Simon and Kirby's antithesis of this real-life menace was their paragon of patriotism, Captain America. Once the United States entered World War II, Captain America, The Human Torch, and other titles regularly featured the heroes combating Axis enemies—for example, the cover of Captain America #13 (April 1942) depicts Cap punching a grossly caricatured Japanese soldier while proclaiming, You started it! Now we'll finish it! Readers embraced the superhero war effort, with many comic books selling hundreds of thousands of copies per issue. In December 1943 Captain America became a matinee idol by starring in the first installment of a live-action, fifteen-chapter Republic Pictures movie serial. Funny-animal titles like Super Rabbit joined Timely's publishing line, and the staff increased to handle the workload. Stan Lee assumed a larger editorial role, even writing some stories, and many artists accepted salaried staff positions to draw comic books.

Then the war ended, sounding the death knell for the first wave of superheroes. Some comics publishers withered away, and those that stayed in business canceled or diminished their superhero lines. By the end of the 1940s Timely's remaining superhero titles—Sub-Mariner, The Human Torch, and Captain America—were axed, the latter bearing the insult of piggybacking the burgeoning horror trend with its last issue: In Captain America's Weird Tales #75 (February 1950), the hero appeared in name only. Logos reading Marvel Comics sometimes appeared on the covers of late 1940s books, hinting at the name the company would one day adopt.

By the late 1940s the publisher's funny-animal comics were accompanied by crime, romance, girl's adventure, and Western titles; a sampling of Timely series from this era includes Komic Kartoons, All True Crime, My Romance, Cowgirl Romances, Millie the Model, Patsy Walker, and Two-Gun Kid. As the United States slipped into the post–World War II atomic age, the optimistic vehemence of the 1940s—when readers rallied behind Captain America and other comics that became more propaganda than entertainment—gave way to a new era of suspicion and paranoia.

In 1950 the Korean conflict inspired a slew of war series like Battle and War Adventures, featuring gritty portrayals of the brutality of human combat. The company was gutted in the early 1950s by a sweeping personnel layoff, a cost-cutting measure initiated by Goodman to maximize profits as part of a new distribution pact that added the imprint Atlas onto each of the company's covers. Failed 1953–1954 attempts to revive Captain America (as a Commie Smasher!), Sub-Mariner, and The Human Torch resulted in the publisher's avoidance of superheroes for the balance of the decade (though some elegant and now largely forgotten attempts at reviving the genre with newer characters like Venus and Marvel Boy had been made earlier on). Atlas added explicit horror titles to its line, a decision it regretted during the 1954 United States Senate witch hunt that attacked graphic comics content and almost extinguished the entire industry. Sales declined, publishers folded, page rates shrunk, and writers and artists were out of work.

By the end of the 1950s Goodman managed to keep his comics house alive by brokering a deal with Independent News Co. to distribute Atlas' periodicals, but there was a catch: The company could produce no more than eight titles a month, not a surprising limitation considering that its new distribution source was owned by its competitor, DC Comics. The company dropped the Atlas label and went nameless for a brief period. Disgruntled and on the brink of resignation, editor/writer Stan Lee sadly surveyed what was left of a once-thriving line: A smattering of monster titles featuring characters with childish names like Torr, The Thing That Shouldn't Exist, and Fin Fang Foom.

An early 1960s golf game between Goodman and DC's publisher Jack Liebowitz offered Lee an epiphany, at least indirectly. Liebowitz remarked of the stellar sales generated by DC's new Justice League of America title—the most recent addition to its line of successfully reworked superheroes—and Goodman then directed Lee to produce a superteam for their own company's comics line. Lee took this as a challenge to create a series with emotional resonance—I was really interested in the characters as people, he commented—the result being Fantastic Four #1 in November 1961. The FF consisted of a family (a snobby scientist, his reserved fiancée, her impulsive brother, and an irascible friend) that gains superpowers and becomes a force for good. This family was a dysfunctional one, however, filled with bickering but united by love. The novelty of this new breed of heroes, along with Lee's dialoguing verve and the energetic artwork of Jack Kirby, made Fantastic Four a runaway success. The Marvel Age was born.

The publisher, now calling itself Marvel Comics, continued to strike with unpredictable, problem-plagued, self-consumed, and unlikely superheroes, an exciting universe of characters all co-existing in the same fictional world. The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Spider-Man, Ant-Man, and Iron Man came along, as did supergroup titles The Avengers and The X-Men. Lee wrote and edited the burgeoning line, and managed his workload by formulating the Marvel method of scripting: He'd craft a terse plot that the penciler would illustrate, with Lee scripting pages after they were drawn. This shortcut not only helped the writer/editor manage more titles, it also vested the artists in their storytelling. Lee provided a voice to Marvel Comics, speaking colloquially to his readers in his letters pages (and awarding selected letter writers a coveted No-Prize, which was just that: a specially designed envelope containing nothing inside) and in his hype-laced Stan's Soapbox columns. He created intimacy between readers and comics professionals by humanizing his fellow creators with nicknames: Jack King Kirby, Genial Gene Colan, Jazzy Johnny Romita, and his own alias, Stan The Man Lee. Doctor Strange, Sgt. Fury (later to become Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and Daredevil joined the line, as did additional writers, artists, and editors.

Although the distribution deal with Independent News/DC strangled Marvel at its eight-title maximum throughout most of the 1960s, anthology books like Strange Tales and Tales to Astonish allowed more characters their venue. Marvel's superhero comics enjoyed growing sales, mass-media exposure through TV cartoons and merchandising, a company-generated fan club (the Merry Marvel Marching Society, or M.M.M.S.), and counter-culture acceptance on college campuses. As of 1968 the distribution restriction was lifted and a barrage of new characters and titles appeared. And throughout the decade, readers never knew what to expect in a Marvel title: Captain America was discovered frozen in ice, the Green Goblin exposed Spider-Man's identity, Galactus threatened to engulf the entire planet, and visionary artists like Jim Steranko drew for Marvel while DC Comics expatriate Neal Adams relocated there. Lee had created a so-called House of Ideas, and his drive to produce superheroes with realistic resonance became a core philosophy that steered the company for years to come. Industry giant DC lumbered through the 1960s, not considering this upstart Marvel a threat until it was too late—as the 1970s began, Marvel was now comics' best-selling publisher.

DC struck back, however, under the leadership of editorial director Carmine Infantino. Superstar artist Kirby defected to DC (for a few years, before he returned to Marvel), and the companies waged content and market-share war for several years. Marvel helped define new genres like sword-and-sorcery (through its acquisition of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian as a comic-book property), horror (via gripping titles like The Tomb of Dracula and Man-Thing), and martial arts (Master of Kung Fu and Iron Fist). DC countered with innovative alternatives, but Marvel controlled the 1970s.

Marvel introduced two iconic anti-heroes, the Punisher in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 (1974) and the clawed mutant Wolverine in The Incredible Hulk #181 (1974), then followed with an all-new incarnation of an old standby in Giant-Size X-Men #1 (1975). Marvel and DC even shook hands long enough to co-produce the wildly successful one-shot Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man (1975). Marvel milestones during the second half of the 1970s include Howard the Duck, The Incredible Hulk live-action television show, Star Wars comics adaptations, and clones of Marvel's two most visible heroes in Spider-Woman and The Savage She-Hulk. Lee was booted upstairs into executive management before vacating the House of Ideas for Hollywood in 1980, where he helped bring Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and other characters to animated television. He was succeeded at Marvel by a revolving door of editors in chief, including Jim Shooter.

Appointed in 1978, Shooter, perceived by many as a taskmaster, elicited love/hate reactions from staff and freelance creators. Early in his near-decade-long tenure, Marvel released some of its most celebrated, creator-driven successes: Walt Simonson's Thor, Chris Claremont and John Byrne's collaboration on X-Men, the adult fantasy and science fiction magazine Epic Illustrated, Byrne's popular run on Fantastic Four, the expansion of X-Men into a franchise beginning with The New Mutants graphic novel (1982), and Frank Miller's dark take on Daredevil, the latter of which introduced the popular assassin Elektra in 1981.

After the publication of the toy tie-in superhero crossover Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars (1984), a critically lambasted but highly profitable limited series that sold roughly 750,000 copies per issue, Shooter reportedly initiated a heavy-handed editorial presence that soured many writers and artists; other creative personnel embraced his vision and stood steadfastly in his corner. Despite his controversial management style, Shooter as editor in chief helped direct Marvel toward a period of commercial success.

Changes within Marvel's financial infrastructure occurred in 1986, when New World Pictures bought Marvel with an eye toward media development of its characters. More new titles were produced, including a line of comics (including Star Brand, Nightmask, and Psi Force) in a separate reality from the Marvel superheroes called the New Universe, an experiment that flopped. Shooter left the company in 1987, replaced by Tom DeFalco, who continued to help the line grow. The Punisher now starred in his own series, as did Wolverine. The House of Ideas produced so many ideas that characters strayed from their source material. Some books grew so dense with continuity that they were inaccessible for anyone other than the devotee. But they still sold well.

In 1989 Revlon chief and investor supreme Ron Perelman bought Marvel and took it public. To ensure shareholder profits, Marvel exploited gimmicks like variant covers, cover enhancements, rampant franchising, and its cadre of young, hot artists—Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, and Jim Lee, among others. Marvel cultivated then manipulated a speculator boom that pushed sales of some titles into the millions. Most of Marvel's output was pedestrian at best, pandering at worst, piggybacking on the success of collector and speculator sales. Before long Marvel became part of a conglomerate that included action-figure manufacturer Toy Biz and trading-card company Fleer. Corporate raider Carl Icahn attempted a hostile takeover of the company, and his struggle with Perelman merited a book on the subject: Dan Raviv's Comic Wars: How Two Tycoons Battled Over the Marvel Comics Empire And Both Lost!!! (Broadway Books, 2002). In 1993 Marvel strong-armed its own distribution network and continued to feed the speculator frenzy, but by the mid-1990s—after McFarlane and friends had jumped ship and formed their own publishing company, Image Comics—the excessive glut of product forced the bottom to drop out of the market. Speculators fled, and on December 27, 1996, Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. filed for bankruptcy.

After floundering for several years, with industry naysayers predicting its demise, Marvel Comics was creatively rejuvenated: Chief creative officer Avi Arad appointed Bill Jemas as president and Joe Quesada—an extremely popular comic-book artist—as editor in chief. A leaner, more streamlined Marvel has since focused on a core line of exciting, accessible characters, with successful creators like Brian Michael Bendis, Grant Morrison, Bruce Jones, and others reshaping the Marvel universe for the twenty-first century. Best-selling titles have included Ultimate Spider-Man and, now as before, X-Men and The Incredible Hulk. Marvel emerged from bankruptcy after the unparalleled financial success of Sam Raimi's live-action theatrical blockbuster, Spider-Man (2002). Reinforced by the success of additional blockbuster movies starring Marvel characters—including X-Men (2000), X2: X-Men United (2002), and Daredevil (2003)—Marvel Comics has reclaimed its title as the House of Ideas. —ME

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