The History of Marvel

This April, the Marvel Universe will be front and centre in the superhero blockbuster you've been waiting for: The Avengers. Here, the heroes behind the heroes take us back to where it all began

Before Marvel became the multi-billion-dollar entertainment juggernaut it is today, the company started as humble Timely Comics.This disposable pulp factory from publisher Martin Goodman – staffed by a young skeleton crew – launched in 1939 with Marvel Comics #1, starring Carl Burgos and Bill Everett’s heroes the Human Torch and Namor the Sub-Mariner, respectively. Far from hoping to build a multimedia empire, staffers Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, and Stan Lee just wanted to make a living...

Joe Simon (Editor, 1939-1941; co-creator of Captain America): This was the Depression, and I was out of a job. An art director in New York looked at my portfolio and suggested a new type of magazine making a lot of waves: comic books.

Stan Lee (Editor-in-Chief, 1941-1942, 1945-1972; co-creator of Spider-Man, X-Men, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor, Dr Strange, and Daredevil): My cousin’s husband, Martin Goodman, published men’s magazines, romance magazines, pulps, all kinds of things. His philosophy was: find out what’s selling and copy it. He was the great follower.

Joe Simon: We had the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner. [Writer-artist] Jack Kirby and I used to get ideas and put them on our shelves. We didn’t trust anybody in those days. When Martin Goodman came to me and asked if I had anything, there was almost a whole issue of Captain America ready to go.

Stan Lee: I heard that Martin needed an assistant, so I figured I might as well get out into the real world. I’m still waiting to get out there.

Joe Simon: Stan Lee used to follow us around. He was our little kid, made us laugh. Kirby hated him from the beginning. I thought he was cute.

Stan Lee: I don’t think becoming Editor-in-Chief had to do with my qualifications – there was nobody else.

Joe Simon: The royalty Martin paid us was never realistic. We got a little pissed off.

Stan Lee: Suddenly, Kirby and Simon left. Martin looked around and said, “Hey, do you think you could hold down this job until I can get an adult?”

Joe Simon: Stan was always embarrassed about being related to Martin. Three years ago he called me and said, “When I do interviews, I tell the story that I was walking down the hall and ran into Martin, and Martin says, ‘What are you doing here?’ I tell Martin, ‘I work here,’ and Martin says, ‘Wow, that’s a coincidence!’” I said, “Stan, that couldn’t have happened.” He says, “Why not?” “We didn’t have a hall.”

The Marvel Universe Big Bang

When the superhero craze died down after World War II, Goodman ordered his comics company – renamed Atlas in 1951 – to crank out romances, westerns, funny animal books, horror stories, anything that sold. It wasn’t until the autumn of 1961, when Goodman instructed Lee to chase the sales of rival publisher DC’s Justice League of America, that Stan and Jack Kirby (now back in the fold) really struck out on their own with The Fantastic Four #1.
An instant sales phenomenon, rivalled the next summer with the debut of Spider-Man, the book gave birth to the shared world of heroes and villains known as the Marvel Universe. Its flawed characters appeared in one another’s comics, teamed up against one another’s enemies, and learned from their experiences. Kicking off a comic book revival known as the Silver Age, it changed the industry forever.

Stan Lee: I felt I wasn’t getting anywhere. I used to say to my wife, “Should the company go out of business” – and once or twice we came close – “What do I do?” You couldn’t go to Time magazine and say, “I wanna write for you. I used to write Silly Seal and Ziggy Pig.” I loved doing comics, but where was the future?

Joe Sinnott (Fantastic Four inker, 1965-1981): At the time Stan created the Fantastic Four, we thought it was just another story. We were wrong.

Roy Thomas (Editor-in-Chief, 1972-1974; Conan the Barbarian writer, 1970-1980; co-creator of Red Sonja and Iron Fist): I bought Fantastic Four #1 off the stands. I fell in love with the Thing.

Joe Sinnott: Stan mailed me Fantastic Four #5 to work on. I had never seen anything like that before.

Marv Wolfman (Editor-in-Chief, 1975-1976; co-creator of Blade): The characters acted very differently from the other comics. They weren’t always friendly, and they seemed to live between episodes. That idea of continuity was picked up by all media, not just superhero comics. In the past every episode of a TV show was stand-alone. Marvel changed that.

Stan Lee: Before we did Fantastic Four, we might get one letter saying, “I bought one of your books and the staple came out. I want my dime back.” I’d hang it on the wall and say, “Look, we got a fan letter!” As soon as we brought out the Fantastic Four, we started getting real letters. You didn’t need a house to fall on you to realise you were onto something.

Joe Sinnott: That’s when comic books took off – the second coming of the Superhero Age.

Stan Lee: I’d say to myself, “What kind of character hasn’t been done yet?” With Spider-Man I was just trying to think of a superpower that no one had used.

Brian K. Vaughan (Lost writer, 2007-2009; co-creator of Runaways and the Hood): If you’re an awkward nerd, it’s a slam dunk to read about Peter Parker, who is an awkward nerd with money problems and girl problems, but gets to live this other life as a wisecracking hero.

Stan Lee: We couldn’t do enough superhero books. Everybody was clamouring for them.

Brian K. Vaughan: In a couple of years, they created dozens of characters that have lasted decades and become hit movie franchises. It’s totally unbelievable how hard that is to do. It’s like the Beatles.

Make Mine Marvel

For a baby boomer audience quickly outgrowing the simplistic, square-jawed superheroics of DC’s Superman, Batman, and the Flash, Lee and company’s heroes were perfect: angsty, intelligent, rejected by society, even beset by physical handicaps. Pre-emo teens looking for an outlet and college kids eager to expand their minds helped nearly double Marvel’s annual sales in four years.
While artists like Kirby and Steve Ditko added personal style and psychedelic flourishes to Lee’s soap-operatic stories, Lee became an in-demand speaker on campuses and a fixture in the comics’ letters column, painting Marvel as one big, happy family fans were welcome to join.
Stan Lee: I worked with the most brilliant artists: Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Romita Sr, John Buscema, Gil Kane, Gene Colan, Dick Ayers. I don’t think we’d have been so successful if not for those guys.

Louise Simonson (X-Men line writer-editor, 1980-1991): Jack Kirby is the Picasso of American comic books. The man was a genius.

Gary Groth (The Comics Journal editor, 1976-present; co-publisher of Ghost World): There was a lot of pain in Kirby’s work. Ben Grimm was always pissed off about being the Thing, the Hulk was in a constant state of angst – these guys clearly suffered!

Jim Steranko (Strange Tales; Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. writer-artist, 1966-1968): Marvel was in a different dimension than DC. One embraced a bravura ideology; the other was pragmatic and elitist. One was exhilarating;
the other, exhausting.

Gary Groth: Kirby drew buildings and boulders and streets that felt real, whereas the same landscapes at DC looked like they were all made out of balsa wood. His fight scenes were down-and-dirty, where people really looked like they were pummelling each other.

Chris Claremont (Uncanny X-Men writer, 1975-1991): DC’s theory was that you cycled through an audience every three years. Stan’s revolutionary concept was: why not just keep moving ahead?

John Romita Jr (Amazing Spider-Man, X-Men, Daredevil artist, 1978-present): My father was working for DC, and he would bring home Superman. It was so childish to me – and I was a kid! But then he left to work on Daredevil. He’d explain it: “This is Daredevil, and he’s blind.” He’s blind? He’s surrounded! How’s he gonna get out of there? I was hooked.

Walt Simonson (The Mighty Thor writer-artist, 1983-1987): I was in college, and I wrote to Marvel and asked for a copy of Journey Into Mystery #122. One day a copy showed up with a card that said, “Couldn’t let you down. Enjoy the comic, from Stan and the gang.” I went bat-shit.

Herb Trimpe (The Incredible Hulk artist, 1968-1977; co-creator of Wolverine): The office was laidback – no cards, no ID, no locks – you just walked in. Sometimes fans would come in, and if someone wasn’t busy they’d show them around.

Stan Lee: After a while Jack and Steve especially were practically doing whole plots. I might have been writing an X-Men story for Jack when Steve Ditko would say, “I need the next Spider-Man story.” I couldn’t let Steve stand around with nothing to do, so I’d say, “Steve, I don’t have the script, but let’s get a villain called the Vulture; he does this and that, and then Spidey ends up beating him this way in the end. Draw it any way you want.” Jack and Steve were so imaginative – I’d just tie everything together with dialogue. I loved them. I was very sorry when they left. “Very sorry” is putting it mildly.

Changing Of The Gaurd

Marvel’s Spider-Man and Fantastic Four first hit the small screen in cartoon form in 1967 – the opening salvo in a cultural explosion that included Spidey Underoos [undies for kids] and Paul McCartney writing songs about Magneto. But Ditko had abruptly quit. Three years later Jack Kirby departed for archrival DC. Even Stan Lee left his writing and editing duties behind in 1972 when Cadence Industries (Marvel’s owner) made him the company’s publisher.
As the ‘Holy Trinity’ faded, a younger generation – fans first, creators second – took the reins and began crafting characters with a darker edge: Blade, Ghost Rider, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, even the satirical Howard the Duck. Though they never reached the Silver Age’s success, Marvel’s ’70s crew laid the groundwork for huge growth by revamping a failed Lee-Kirby concept: the X-Men.

Stan Lee: Really, I’m not sure what the hell happened with Jack quitting. I was the face of the company, and I’m guessing he felt, “Jesus, we’re doing this together, and he’s getting so much credit.” Again, I’m guessing; he never said why he left. I asked him once, and he said, “You should know!”

Roy Thomas: After a few years at DC, Jack wanted to come back, but he knew he had set a few fires. Stan hadn’t been too happy about this [DC character] Funky Flashman that Jack had based on him. Jack joked, “Well, it was all in fun.” It wasn’t all in fun.

Len Wein (Editor-in-Chief, 1974-5; co-creator of Wolverine; editor of DC Comics’ Watchmen): We were a bunch of kids running a comic book company. If anybody wore socks, it was a big day.

Herb Trimpe: We did a lot of throwaway characters for the Hulk to fight – they came in one issue and were out in the next. Wolverine was one of those.

Len Wein: Roy Thomas gave me the name Wolverine. They’re nasty little creatures with razor-sharp claws. It was the easiest thing in the world to develop. I made him a mutant because there had been some talk about reviving the dormant X-Men book. Nobody intended him to be a superstar.

Chris Claremont: We just wanted to have fun. What were the most outrageous things we could do?

Bob Harras (Editor-in-Chief, 1995-2000): X-Men was what Marvel was about: being different and misunderstood and yet still striving to do good despite the world looking at you with doubt and suspicion.

Renaissance Men

As astute an editor as he was combative a personality, Jim Shooter ushered in a new era when he became Editor-in-Chief in 1978. Under Shooter the rights and royalties afforded to Marvel’s writers and artists improved, as did the accessibility of their storylines. Taking advantage of the new ‘direct market’ of comic book stores, X-Men killed off S&M-tinged leading lady Jean Grey, the Phoenix, and its circulation went through the roof.
Shooter’s Secret Wars series proved that editorially driven ‘crossover’ titles could sustain the bottom line, while cutting-edge work like Frank Miller’s Daredevil ushered in a creative renaissance.
Yet at the same time, an ongoing dispute with Jack Kirby over thousands of pages of original art Marvel refused to return to him gave the company a major black eye. Meanwhile, Shooter’s battles with both talent and management became legendary.

Jim Shooter: When I took over, it was a train wreck.

Marv Wolfman: Jim ruined things for a lot of people, and a lot of us left after that point.

Walt Simonson: But when Phoenix died, that catapulted the X-Men into the stratosphere.

Len Wein: Jean had destroyed the planet of the Broccoli People or whatever, and Jim said she had to pay for her crime. It got a lot of press – people weren’t ready for a superhero to die.

Louise Simonson: Death sold. Comic shop owners were calling up saying, “Which book is it going to be where everybody dies? We want a whole lot of those.”

Jim Shooter: Everybody reads about how I demanded they kill Phoenix. Nobody reads about a couple of months later when Claremont buys his mother an airplane with the money he made.

Jim Lee (Uncanny X-Men artist and X-Men writer-artist, 1990-1992): It was the franchise. Nothing could touch it.

Jim Shooter: When I was editing Chris’ stuff, I’d have to say things like, “You cannot have the professor dressed in transvestite bondage gear.” The editor would tell Chris, and he’d lose his mind.

Tom DeFalco (Editor-in-Chief, 1987-1994): Shooter got the trains to run on time, he had a lot of great ideas, and he assembled an incredible crew.

Frank Miller (Daredevil writer-artist, 1979-1983, 1986): I felt comfortable with Daredevil. He couldn’t do the extraordinary stuff, so I could get closer to the crime stories I wanted to do.

Jim Shooter: We invented the mega-crossover, got all the good guys and all the bad guys in one series. They’d say, “30-year-old fans hate it.” So what? The kids are what’s important. To this day there are people who blame me for all kinds of things. The whole situation with Kirby – I had a say? It was the board of directors, the lawyers, the principals.

Gary Groth: I recall one particularly grotesque moment on a pro-Kirby panel at San Diego during which Shooter got into a screaming match with Kirby’s wife, Roz. It
was unbelievable.

Tom Brevoort (Executive Editor, 2007-present, and Senior Vice President of Publishing, 2011-present) There were a lot of bitter enemies at Marvel who’d cross the street to avoid each other on the sidewalk, but they agreed on Jim. Some good comics came out, but the word was that he was making everyone crazy.

Jim Shooter: The board of directors took the company private and immediately tried to sell it. I thought it was a scam to cheat the stockholders. They had to get rid of me. But we had a mini-golden-era.

THE BOOM AND THE BUST

As pop culture went grunge, Marvel Comics went glitz. Purchased by Revlon cosmetics mogul Ron Perelman in 1989, the company embarked on an orgy of expansion, purchasing trading card companies, toy manufacturers, comics distributors, and more. A new breed of flashy, ambitious young artists like Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee became nearly as famous to fans as the characters they drew. The hit series of these young Turks – Spider-Man, X-Force, X-Men – purged veteran talent like Claremont, attracted ‘speculators’ looking to buy future collector’s items, and shattered sales records.
But greed wasn’t good. When McFarlane, Lee, and five other superstars quit Marvel to form their own company, Marvel resorted to convoluted crossovers and multiple gimmick covers in a desperate attempt to maintain sales. Speculators vanished, forcing the direct market’s collapse. Meanwhile, Perelman’s overreach earned Marvel a mountain of debt. A decade that began with blockbusters ended in bankruptcy.

Todd McFarlane (Amazing Spider-Man artist and Spider-Man writer-artist, 1988-1991): That was the heyday, I’m telling you. Life was pretty good.

Tom Brevoort: Everyone had expense accounts. Christmas parties became decadent affairs – the hotel in Grand Central Station, big ice sculptures of Spider-Man, crazy DJs in a control room like Professor X. It was an insane spectacle of excess.

Chris Claremont: Regimes changed, attitudes changed. Some people felt that X-Men needed stirring up. I’m not the one to ask.

Jim Lee: As far as Chris Claremont, he didn’t see eye to eye with the execs on the future of the X-Men. The company won out. I learned that you just rented time on characters you didn’t own – though you were literally bringing them to life month in, month out.

Todd McFarlane: I set a sales record, then all of a sudden they thought my stories were too dark. I was like, “I’m selling more books than anybody else in North America! Why are we even having this conversation?”

Joe Quesada (Editor-in-Chief, 2000-11; Chief Creative Officer, 2010-present): Marvel was a place you could go to make money. But if you wanted to be treated like an artist and a human being, you didn’t want to be there.

Todd McFarlane: Those of us who left were the rebels. But there was very little downside. If I said to Marvel, “I’m tired of running my own company. Can I do Spider-Man again?” What, they’re gonna say, “No”?

Tom DeFalco: Marvel had this genius who decided if you’re doing 120 titles and you cut it down to 60, they’d sell twice as well. I laughed in his face.

Bob Harras: Crossovers became a cross you had to bear, because they’d work.

Bill Jemas (COO and President of Publishing, 2000-2004): Marvel Comics were almost unintelligible. Each new story tied into every other story for 40 years. The learning curve was so steep that it was all but impossible to sell comics to kids.

Tom Brevoort: Perelman’s company used Marvel stock to buy up everything. When the market slipped, suddenly there was a huge amount of debt that didn’t have anything to do with Marvel.

Tom DeFalco: Because we only went up seven per cent and didn’t do the normal double digits, they got rid of me. A year later they went bankrupt.

Tom Brevoort: The offices were empty, like a ghost town. They were shortsighted and arrogant the way they ran the place. But I think Perelman personally walked away with $800 million out of this, so it was shortsighted in a profitable way.

MARVEL GOES TO HOLLYWOOD

As it once again became the hottest property in comics, Marvel conquered Hollywood. First through outside studios, then in-house as Marvel Studios, the company’s movie operation launched
a string of smashes. The X-Men and Spider-Man franchises played leapfrog with each other’s records, while the nearly universally acclaimed Iron Man showed Marvel could make hits all on its own.
And everyone – not just fanboys – has eyes and ears wide open for any details about The Avengers, as well as 2013’s Iron Man 3 and Thor 2. The one sour note is the issue of royalties, which are often few and far between for the characters’ creators. Stan Lee himself sued Marvel in 2002 for his slice of the Spider-Man pie.

Tom DeSanto (X-Men and X-2 executive producer): Comic book movies were considered box office poison after Batman & Robin came out, so when we released X-Men, the studio was just blindsided by the success. Spider-Man got green-lighted that Monday.

Sam Raimi (Spider-Man director): I felt a lot of pressure from the comics world. People don’t want the character they love to be massacred.

Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk director): Comic book fans are very vocal. It wasn’t like, “Don’t f—k it up or I’ll find you!” It was more, “Please, please, we hope someone comes along and does it justice.”

Len Wein: I have not seen a dime off of any Marvel stuff, nor do I have a credit on the Wolverine film. Hugh Jackman is a lovely man, and at the premiere he told the audience that he owed his career to me and had me take a bow. It was very gratifying and very nice. I would have preferred a cheque.

Stan Lee: What’s “your fair share”? Everybody thinks they deserve more than they got.

Frank Miller: In Iron Man the wit of the original Marvel comics was beautifully portrayed by Robert Downey Jr.w The Incredible Hulk was extremely good, too. How do I put it? These movies feel drawn.

Joe Quesada: We’re very hands-on with the official made-by-Marvel movies. I remember
a call late at night: “What do you think of Robert Downey Jr?”

WAR AND PEACE

Today Marvel is responsible for almost half of all the comics sold in the direct market. Their characters are a licensing bonanza for everything from Hulk Hands to the Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark Broadway musical, featuring songs by Bono and the Edge. The company that sprang from the minds of Stan, Jack, and friends in 1939 has become a veritable universe of its own.

Brian K. Vaughan: Marvel and DC are my divorced mum and dad. DC is my stable, loving, nurturing mum. Marvel is my weird
dad who lives in a condo and doesn’t know how to cook, but he’ll let you stay up until three in the morning watching RoboCop 2.

Stan Lee: I’m still the chairman emeritus of Marvel, although I have no idea what that
title means. These characters are not really mine anymore. There are other people writing them, other people drawing them. Which is wonderful – it’s as it should be – but it’s hard for me to feel a sense of belonging to these characters when I have nothing to do with them anymore. I’m happy that they’ve succeeded, of course. I was always saying, “We should be another Disney!” And now we’re getting close. [Disney actually acquired Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion in 2009.]

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