Marvel Comics

Marvel Comics, now a publicly traded company, has been the US' largest publisher of comic books for decades. Marvel is known for famous characters like Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the Punisher, and Daredevil, some of the thousands of characters that populate the Marvel universe, the largest fictional construct ever created in any medium.

1932-1939 - Pulp Fiction

Marvel Comics would grow out of a conglomoration of companies created by Martin Goodman (1908-1992) to publish pulp fiction. Goodman's strategy was to identify popular trends and flood the market with similar material, a strategy, for good or ill, that Marvel would emulate throughout its existence. Starting in 1932, Goodman published in any genre he thought would sell: westerns, crime, science fiction, jungle action. One of the pulps was even called Marvel Tales. Goodman's company didn't have a name as it was really dozens of different companies created as a collective tax dodge and to prevent one failure from dragging down the whole lot. Some of Goodman's pulps bore a small "Red Circle Magazine" logo, but it appeared irregularly.

1940s - Timely Comics and the Golden Age

The success of DC Comics' Superman, first published in Action Comics #1 in 1938, convinced other publishers to get in on the action (no pun intended), including Goodman. The next year came the first Marvel Comic, Marvel Comics #1, though no one yet knew how appropriate that title was. They would publish a whole posse of mostly quickly forgotten heroes in the Golden Age of comics, but two of the most important first appeared in this book: the Human Torch, created by Carl Burgos, and the Sub-Mariner, created by Bill Everret. The fights between the pair, the titantic battle between fire and water, the surface world and the undersea realm, were a highlight of the Golden Age. They soon fought Nazis instead of each other, along with the third important Timely hero, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's Captain America, who appeared in 1941.

The name "Timely Comics" is used to refer to Marvel of the 1940s, but most of their comics bore no company logo. Some had a patriotic red white and blue "Timely Comics" logo early in the decade, while some later in the 40s had "A Marvel Magazine" or "Marvel Comic" on them.

1950s - Atlas Comics

After the war, the readers were losing interest in superheroes. Funny animal comics were a big seller for the company starting in the early 40s. Westerns were also a great success, and some of them lasted from 1948 until the late 1970s. They also tried to reach female readers with comics about female superheroes, nurses, and models. Romance comics were cranked out by the dozens starting in 1948, leading to a bizarre hybrid genre the next year, the western romance.

Superheroes, however, were petering out, and most of the superhero titles from any publisher were cancelled by the late 40s or early 50s. Marvel tried to resurrect them in 1953 as commie fighters, but the experiment failed by the next year. The whole industry was dealt a blow by a campaign by a misguided psychiatrist named Frederic Wertham, who claimed that comics led to juvenile delinquency. Marvel, which had started using the "Atlas Comics" logo by mid-decade, was eking out an existence publishing watered down horror books and monster comics which featured creatures like "Fin Fang Foom". These monster comics are what most people think about when they think about Marvel in the 1950s, and they featured artists like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Don Heck, all of whom would be drawing classic superhero stories just a few years later.

1961-1972 - Stan Lee and Jack Kirby - The Marvel Renaissance

Stan Lee, the most important man in the history of the company, was the cousin of Martin Goodman's wife. This time nepotism paid off, though the dividends wouldn't appear for 20 years. Hired as a teenager in 1940 as a gofer, he annoyed the older artists by playing the ocarina. He soon graduated to writing comics and wrote in every genre the company produced in the next two decades. By 1961, he was sick of it and ready to quit, and when Goodman decided to imitate the newest trend, Lee saw his chance to finally write comics the way he thought they should be written.

That trend was a resurgence in the popularity of superheroes, and DC's Justice League of America was selling briskly. Lee's version was the Fantastic Four, a sharp contrast to the JLA. The FF was made up of real people with real problems and fought as much with each other as with supervillains. The combination of Lee's realistic characterizations and Kirby's stunning art created a dramatic punch that was absent from DC books. The Lee/Kirby collaboration was fruitful, producing the FF, the Avengers, Thor, the X-Men, and the Hulk. Lee also collaborated with Steve Ditko on Spider-Man, a teenage superhero with teenage problems which teenage audiences could identify with.

The Marvel books, especially the FF and Spider-Man, were stunning successes. They were intensely popular and reinvented the superhero genre, creating a more realistic, dramatic form which is still being imitated. The books, with their more sophisticated characterization, attracted older readers, even college students. Stan Lee's huckster charm gave a certain panache to the torrent of Marvel hype, and through his nicknames for the creators (Stan "The Man" Lee, "King" Kirby, etc.), letter pages, and fan clubs, he built amazing brand loyalty. "Marvel Zombies" snatched up all of the company's titles.

Behind the scenes, this success caused problems between Lee and his collaborators. Stan Lee became the public face of the popular company, now officially called Marvel Comics as of May 1963. He got the credits and accolades while the artists were doing more and more of the work. Eventually, both Kirby (in 1970) and Ditko (in 1966) left the company due to disagreements with Lee, though both would eventually return to the company for brief periods.

1970s - Expansion and Experimentation

By the end of the 1960s, up and coming artists like Neal Adams and Jim Steranko were breaking new ground, experimenting with new forms of visual storytelling. This paved the way for the next decade, a chaotic and freewheeling time for the company. Lee stepped down as editor-in-chief in 1972, and the office became a revolving door, with five people holding the post over the next six years. Marvel was expanding too rapidly for any one person to oversee the entire line, and so an unusual post called "writer-editor" evolved, allowing someone to edit the same book he wrote, which essentially gave him a free hand. But perhaps the idea wasn't as bad as it seems on paper, as a lot of great and very unusual books were published during this time: Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith's Conan the Barbarian, Steve Gerber's Howard the Duck, Jim Starlin's Warlock, Marv Wolfman's Tomb of Dracula, Archie Goodwin's Star Wars, Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy's Master of Kung Fu, and Chris Claremont and John Byrne's X-Men.

In 1968, Goodman sold Marvel comics to Cadence Industries. The family business was now part of the corporate business world, but the implications of this wouldn't be felt for quite some time. Goodman stayed on at Marvel for a few years, but in 1974 resurrected the name Atlas Comics for a company that was a direct competitor to Marvel and DC. Perhaps this was retaliation for Marvel firing his son Chip, or perhaps he relished the challenge and thought he could pull it off. Either way, Atlas was plagued by poor distribution and really didn't offer anything the big two already did, so it died a quick death less than a year later.

1978-1987 - The Shooter Years

During the 1980s, the comic books made a transition from primary selling in newsstands, drugstores, etc. to selling in the "direct market", comic book specialty stores. On the upside, it prevented comics from dying a slow death on the newsstand, where they were sold by people who didn't know how to sell them and preferred to sell costlier and more profitable magazines. On the downside, comics were no longer a mass medium and instead catered to an insular cult of dorks like me.

Overseeing Marvel at this time was a very tall and very controversial man named Jim Shooter. On the one hand, he steered the company successfully though some potentially tough times and initiated some important advances in the company and the business. On the other, he was loathed by many creators who thought he stifled creativity and created some very bad ideas which have caused no end of trouble for the industry. Clouding all this is the fact that Shooter is a self-mythologizing promoter who gives himself far more credit than he deserves, including crediting himself for things others did.

Shooter ended the writer-editor system by creating a posse of editors, each of which oversaw a selected number of books. Some creators, like Lee's protégé Roy Thomas, saw this as stifling and left the company. While Shooter probably did interfere too much in creative decisions, some of Marvel's greatest books appeared on his watch, though they weren't quite as wild and strange as the previous decade's books. They included Claremont's Uncanny X-Men, Byrne's Fantastic Four, Walt Simonson's Thor, Peter David's Incredible Hulk, and Larry Hama's G.I. Joe. Shooter also started the creator-owned Epic imprint, featuring books like Starlin's Dreadstar and Sergio Aragonés' Groo the Wanderer, and published a line of graphic novels, an innovative format which Marvel didn't create but helped popularize.

Under Shooter's watch, creators were better compensated for their work, but some of them chafed at Shooter's interference and his shabby treatment of Jack Kirby when Kirby tried to get his original art back (original art is now routinely returned in the industry, but it wasn't during Kirby's heyday). Shooter's bad ideas included the New Universe fiasco, still an industry-wide joke 15 years later. He also started the pernicious big crossover trend with Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, a slugfest designed to sell toys, and its stranger sequel, Secret Wars II.

1986 was Marvel's 25th anniversary, counting from the publication of Fantastic Four #1. That year, Marvel was bought by New World Pictures, the movie company started by director Roger Corman, who sold it in 1982. Jim Shooter ran into some sort of conflict with the new owners and left the next year, but what exactly happened is unclear given Shooter's penchant for self-promotion and the polarizing opinions about him out there. Shooter would go on to head several other comics companies, most notably Valiant Comics, and was part of a group of investors in a failed bid to purchase Marvel when New World sold it.

1990s - The Bubble Bursts

Lesser hands took Shooter's bad ideas and ran with them, practically running the industry into the ground in the process. Shooter's successor was a mediocre writer named Tom DeFalco, who took over two of Marvel's great flagship titles, Thor and the Fantastic Four, and quickly made them two of Marvel's worst books. Big crossovers, instead of large infrequent events, became regularly scheduled bores, occurring with appalling frequency, and the stories themselves were shoddy, even by the standard set by Secret Wars. Smaller crossovers were used even more frequently. Popular characters like Wolverine, the Punisher, and Ghost Rider did the rounds to shore up lower-selling books and Marvel didn't seem to care that the cross-promotion was so shameless and blatant. Other gimmicks were just as frequent, like pointless spinoff books, polybagged books with trading cards, expensive chromium covers, and multiple covers, sometimes as many as five.

Another result of flash over substance was that flashy new artists, like Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane, were given precedence over writers. Marvel editors decided that the artists were what was making the books sell, so gave them free rein to veto plots and ignore deadlines, prompting many writers to leave in disgust. That included Chris Claremont, who had written the X-Men for 17 years and was responsible for its phenomenal success. Marvel gave the artists everything they wanted except for more money, and when they were denied better financial terms, a group of fan favorites left en masse to form Image Comics. Marvel managed to alienate everyone simultaneously: fans, writers, and artists.

The suits still had their heads in the sand, which is partially understandable since some hot comics were selling in the millions, unheard of in what was now a specialty market. Unlike the million sellers of the 1940s which were passed around from kid to kid, these million sellers weren't being bought by a million people. Each reader bought multiple copies, either because they wanted each of the multiple covers or they were hoarding copies to resell at a higher price when they rose in value. Collectors became disgusted when they couldn't reap an instant profit and readers became disgusted with crappy stories. With their gimmicks and torrents of crappy comics, Marvel had managed to destroy the brand loyalty they had built up since 1961. The industry suffered due to missteps by Marvel, Image, and other companies. Readers left and shops closed in droves. DeFalco and his replacement Bob Harras could do nothing to change it, and in fact were instrumental in causing it.

Marvel Comics also became a pawn in the games of high finance, and perhaps the short-term profit at any cost ethos of Wall Street filtered down to the company. New World, hemorrhaging money, sold off Marvel to junk-bond magnate Ron Perelman, CEO of Revlon, who outbid Jim Shooter's group of investors. Marvel became the prize in a struggle between Perelman and corporate raider Carl Ichan, and when it all got sorted out in court, control belonged to Ike Perlmutter and Avi Arad, who ran Toy Biz, a toy company and former Marvel subsidiary.

The New Millennium

Joe Quesada was one of those flashy new artists who abused writers and ignored deadlines, but in an editorial position he was far kinder to his fellow creators. Many creators were lured to Marvel, and seeing some of their names on a Marvel book just a few years earlier was unthinkable. Quesada replaced Harras as editor-in-chief in 2000. Some of notable books published under him include Brian Michael Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man, Grant Morrison's X-Men, Peter Milligan and Mike Allred's X-Static, and Christopher Priest's Black Panther.

However, Marvel President Bill Jemas is just as much the public face of the company as Joe Quesada. The suits have always pulled the strings; it was then-Marvel President Terry Stewart and not Tom DeFalco who rebuffed the creators and caused the Image exodus. But to have a President with as much public visibility as Jemas is unprecedented in Marvel's history, and with that visibility comes a lot of fan hosility. Jemas, an executive from the sports memorabilia industry with little experience in comics, actually writes many of Marvel's comics, and dictates the plots of many more. He has made condescending public comments about his creators and fired popular creators from books, like Mark Waid on Fantastic Four, who wouldn't comply with his edicts. He was well on his way to becoming as infamous as Jim Shooter in the company's history when his superiors forced him out in October 2003. It remains to be how Quesada, who until recently was seen as Jemas’ right-hand man, will steer the company now that Jemas is gone.

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