Marvel Comics is the largest publisher of comic books in the United States. It owns many of the most popular characters in comic books, including Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and the Fantastic Four. As a player in the history of the comic book industry, Marvel's significance is equaled only by its longtime rival and chief competitor, DC Comics. Despite being one of the oldest comic book companies, Marvel did not emerge as a truly distinctive and influential creative force in the field until the 1960s. Since then, however, the Marvel style has virtually defined the character of mainstream American comic books.
The company that became known as Marvel Comics began its operation in 1939, when a young pulp magazine publisher named Martin Goodman decided to enter the fledgling comic book business. Taking note of DC's recent success with Superman, Goodman purchased several superhero stories from one of several comic-art studios supplying material to publishers. Soon thereafter, Goodman set up his own comic book production staff under the editorial direction of his teenage nephew Stanley Lieberman, who also wrote comic book stories under the name of Stan Lee. The company was initially called Timely Comics, but also referred to itself by the title of its first publication, Marvel Comics.
The first issue of Marvel Comics, dated November 1939, introduced several original superhero characters, at least two of whom found a lasting audience. The Human Torch, created by Carl Burgos, was actually not a human but an android with the rather terrifying ability to burst into flames and set objects and people ablaze. The Sub-Mariner, created by Bill Everett, was the son of an interracial marriage between an American sea captain and a princess from the undersea kingdom of Atlantis. Possessing superhuman strength and the ability to breathe on land as well as in water, the Sub-Mariner also harbored a fierce antipathy towards the dwellers of the surface world, thereby qualifying him as perhaps the first comic book anti-hero.
Neither the Human Torch nor the Sub-Mariner were about to rival the likes of Superman, Batman, or Captain Marvel, but they helped to give Marvel a significant share of the rapidly expanding comic book market. That share increased in 1941 when Marvel debuted Captain America. The creation of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Captain America became the definitive comic book super-patriot of World War II and Marvel's most popular "star." The cover of Captain America Comics number one brashly portrayed the red-white-and-blue costumed hero socking Adolf Hitler in the mouth. That striking image, appearing more than six months before United States entry into the war, epitomized the staunch anti-Nazi and implicit interventionist tone of this series in particular, and of Marvel's output in general. Although a number of comic book companies published anti-Nazi stories before, during, and after the war, Marvel was among the first to do so. As early as 1939, a Marvel cover showed the Sub-Mariner in battle with the crew of a swastika-flagged submarine, and the Human Torch could be seen burning through the German air force in 1940, over two years before United States air forces would follow suit.
After Pearl Harbor most comic book publishers enlisted wholeheartedly in the war effort, but few became as completely caught up in it as Marvel did. Marvel responded to the global struggle with a ceaseless barrage of simplified and overstated patriotic stories, in which self-righteously noble American heroes crusaded against viciously caricatured German and Japanese cronies. While these comic books did little to inform readers about the real issues and conduct of the war, and some—especially in their depiction of the Japanese—were outright racist, they were hardly unique in wartime American popular culture in these respects. Like most of its competitors, Marvel simply worked to bolster the morale of the young people and servicemen who read comic books, while cashing in on wartime patriotism in the process.
The war figured so prominently into Marvel's superhero comic books, that sales of these titles plummeted with the return to peace. By the end of the 1940s Marvel had ceased publication of all its superhero comic books. The company thrived, however, by diversifying its output and exploring new genres like crime, romance, humor, and horror. Marvel's editorial and publishing strategy during the postwar decade maximized the advantages of Goodman's sizable distribution network. Essentially, the company would take note of the most popular current trends in comic books and flood the market with imitations thereof. Typical examples of this approach were Lawbreakers Always Lose, Marvel's answer to Lev Gleason Publication's successful Crime Does Not Pay and Strange Tales, a pale take-off on EC's Tales From the Crypt. What Marvel's stories lacked in quality, the company made up for with quantity. Whereas EC Comics, the originator and quintessential publisher of horror comic books, actually produced less than 200 such comics between 1950 and 1955, Marvel published over 400 during the same period.
Marvel's conspicuous horror titles garnered the publisher some unfavorable publicity in 1954, when the United States Senate Subcommittee on the Judiciary held its hearings to investigate the alleged link between comic books and juvenile delinquency. Marvel's business manager testified at the hearings, and although he stood up to the subcommittee's questioning better than EC's publisher William Gaines did, Marvel could not escape the public backlash that greeted the comic book industry in the wake of the investigation. In its defense Marvel dutifully adopted the industry's new Comics Code governing comic book content. But declining sales and the bankruptcy of his chief distributor compelled Martin Goodman to drastically curtail Marvel's line. By the end of the 1950s, the company that had published more comic books than any other over the previous two decades had become a marginal player in the field with only a handful of titles on the market.
Marvel's rapid decline brought the company to the brink of collapse, but the desperate situation inspired a new risk-taking strategy—one that gave Marvel's comic books an edgy quality that they had not possessed in decades. In collaboration with his primary artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, writer-editor Stan Lee decided to try out a comic book title featuring superheroes that departed from the conventions of the genre. They would be superheroes who, for all their fantastic powers, talked and acted like believable human characters. In contrast to the impossibly noble and rather bland superheroes then on the market, Marvel's new breed of superhero would display such human weaknesses as jealousy, intemperance, and—most importantly—alienation. Launched by Marvel in 1961, The Fantastic Four marked Lee's initial experiment with this style of characterization. When it proved successful, Lee followed with The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man, the former in collaboration with Kirby and the latter with Ditko. With Spider-Man, in particular, Lee hit upon the archetypal angst-ridden adolescent superhero so endearing to young readers. When the sales figures and fan mail came in, Lee knew that he had found a formula for success.
If the lowly comic book can be said to have experienced a "renaissance," then that is what occurred at Marvel Comics during the mid-1960s. In the space of a few years, Marvel introduced a succession of superhero characters who have since become mainstays in comic books. Joining the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, and Spider-Man were the Mighty Thor, Dr. Strange, the X-Men, Iron Man, the Avengers, Daredevil, and the Silver Surfer. All bore in some way the qualities of the misunderstood outsider, which became the Marvel trademark. Marvel's rediscovery of the outsider hero marked the comic book industry's belated recognition of this mythic figure as a compelling force acting on the American imagination. Furthermore, the introduction of ambiguity into the vocabulary of the comic book superhero spoke to the lingering anxieties underlying Cold War culture—anxieties felt most keenly by the nation's youth. The very notion of a troubled and insecure superhero who could not always accomplish what he set out to achieve indicated the limited scope of his superpowers and suggested also the limitations of the nation as a superpower.
Although these comic books have not held up to the critical eye, they significantly impacted the subsequent history of comic books. Their popularity was undeniable. Marvel became a sensation in the 1960s. By reaching out to a slightly older audience and defying the mainstream conventions epitomized by DC, Marvel garnered a sizable college-aged readership and won approval. In 1965 Esquire magazine reported that Marvel had become a phenomenon on campuses nationwide, while characters like Spider-Man, the Hulk, and Dr. Strange, in particular, had achieved noted status among self-described radicals and the counterculture. Marvel's popularity and Stan Lee's unabashed and outrageous hucksterism made Lee himself a minor celebrity and an in-demand speaker at college campuses. Marvel's enthusiastic fan base credited Lee and his collaborators with fashioning a new mythology—a complex fictional universe with interlocking characters and themes that involved readers in much the same way as the mythologies of Star Trek, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Dungeons and Dragons later would. Intentionally or not, Marvel tapped into the escapist, alienated, and anti-mainstream ethos that had always comprised the essence of the comic book's appeal.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Marvel enjoyed a steadily increasing share of the comic book market. In the early 1970s it surpassed DC, ending that publisher's long era of dominance. Forced to acknowledge the popularity of its rival's approach, DC began to adapt the Marvel style to its own superhero comics—sometimes effectively, often clumsily, and rarely with comparable commercial success. In the booming 1980s Marvel secured its commanding market position even further on the strength of such new hits as the revitalized X-Men and the Punisher, as well as the continuing popularity of its established superheroes. Market surveys indicated that Marvel was the top-seller in both the traditional and the increasingly important comic book store markets. To help ensure its dominance, Marvel returned to its old strategy of flooding the market with titles in the hopes of crowding out the competition. Despite spirited challenges from DC and an array of smaller "independent" publishers vying for market share, Marvel has stayed on top and its characters have remained the most popular among comic-book fans.
The company's very success, however, made it a target of some criticism from fans and industry insiders. Many charged that Marvel's comic books, once on the cutting edge of the field, had drifted squarely into the predictable mainstream. Longtime fans grew annoyed by Marvel's bewildering multi-issue "cross-overs" and its tendency to spread popular characters like Spider-Man and the XMen over too many titles. Some creators complained that a dispassionate and sometimes ruthless corporate atmosphere now pervaded the once intimate company that many had idolized and romanticized as young fans. Marvel had been a corporate property since 1968 and changed owners several times. In 1991, under the ownership of billionaire Wall Street investor Ronald Perleman, Marvel Entertainment debuted on the New York Stock Exchange. Shares performed well for several years despite warnings from market watchers that they were overvalued. Then they declined sharply until 1996, when Marvel was compelled to file for chapter eleven bankruptcy protection.
That humiliating debacle had more to do with Perleman's unwise investments in other holdings than it did with the popularity of Marvel's comic books, and the publication of the company's comic books have continued unabated. But Marvel's recent troubles also reflect the general crisis the comic book industry finds itself in at the end of the twentieth century, as it struggles to keep its audience in an increasingly crowded postmodern entertainment industry that caters to youth desires. Mindful of this predicament, Marvel's advertising campaign in the late 1990s emphasized the characters who had made it the industry's leading publisher. As long as Marvel can lay claim to the well-worn, but still appealing, superheroes who do good despite being feared and misunderstood by the public, it should retain its relevant place in the shaping of youth popular culture.
—Bradford W. Wright
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