It’s almost without question that Marvel is the entertainment juggernaut to beat these days. The current runaway release of Avengers: Endgame is a well-earned, and indeed, well-timed victory lap as 2019 also marks the eightieth anniversary of Marvel Comics.
So, whether you’ve seen some of those big superhero movies everyone’s been talking about and are now comic book curious or you’re just new to the planet and are curious about this “Marvel phenomenon”- either way, you are covered!
Let’s take it from the top, take advantage of the added attention and highlight some of the fundamental building blocks of the House of Ideas that is Marvel…
Pre-History: The Golden Age (1930s-1950s)
Despite being such a longtime player, Marvel did not invent the superhero game. However, right from the beginning they were doing things just a little bit differently that people did take notice.
While other publishing houses were cropping up, each seemingly with their own respective superhero – Superman in the pages of Action Comics, Batman over at Detective Comics, etc. – all of Marvel’s original properties (back when the publisher went by the name of Timely) came in an oversized anthology series called Marvel Mystery Comics.
The characters themselves were even a little bit different- the two breakout leads (Namor the Sub-Mariner and the original Human Torch) certainly qualified more as “anti-heroes” or “monsters” than they did as smiling carbon copies to the familiar virtuous attributes of superherodom. Even the one that could be most construed in that context (The Angel) came off as more of a pulpy roughneck despite his white guy in a cape with chest symbol and dashing mustache-ness going for him.
Timely’s biggest seller of the era, though, did feature their most stereotypically heroic figure – one still standing jaw-punchingly above the pack. Debuting before the United States officially entered WWII, Captain America Comics is the creation of two of comicdom’s nth-level all-time greats: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Some plucky intern donning the pen name “Stan Lee” will also get his writing career started on this title shortly after its inception.
After the war, the hero comics fell out of favor, drifting to the wayside as Timely began publishing titles in other genres.
The Silver Age (1960s)
By the dawn of the 1960s, Timely had changed its name to Atlas and moved into romance and cowboy comics (among others), with a particular bent for sci-fi/ light horror featuring alien monsters with almost sound effect-type names: “Fin Fang Foom”, “Spragg” and “Groot” (yep, that’s right).
The story goes that publisher Martin Goodman caught wind of competitor DC having success with a superhero revival trend and charged Stan, now editor, with jumping on these coattails. Stan, however, is allegedly at a bit of a creative crossroads and burnt on the prospect of simply riding another fad into the ground.
It is also worth noting that Jack Kirby has cycled back into the mix as de facto “lead artist”. Rather than follow Goodman’s rote instruction, Lee and Kirby instead turn out Fantastic Four – a love letter to their own creative sanity. Apparently sticking to their guns works as FF soon becomes the new centerpiece of the entire line. Soon, all of their “monster” anthologies such as Tales To Astonish and Journey Into Mystery are featuring serials with all-new hero creations such as Ant-Man and the Mighty Thor.
A few years into this surprisingly momentous endeavor, the publisher officially changes its name to the Marvel Comics Group. It’s been some permutation of that ever since. In these early years, Stan writes or plots pretty much every title. Kirby plots and pencils like five titles on the regular as well (sometimes, even more!). Another notable powerhouse of this era is Steve Ditko, the co-creator of both Spider-Man and Dr. Strange.
The Bronze Age (1970s)
In the early 70s, the landscape of Marvel is very different from its inception. Both Kirby and Ditko have jumped ship for respective stints at DC, and Stan is wrapping up what few writing duties he has left – becoming less hands-on day-to-day and more of an administrator/iconic public spokesperson. Needless to say, some new blood is to be brought in.
Stan’s right-hand, Roy Thomas, is the first to inherit the mantle of editor-in-chief. He will not be the last by the end of the decade, as the position becomes something of a running musical chairs situation.
The Comic Code Authority also loosens its puritanical grip on the industry, allowing Marvel to again start publishing horror titles and a series of more “adult-themed” material. Moreover, the comics of the day begin to reflect more ethnic diversity and social commentary. Certainly, it still can be a bit of a transparently ham-fisted attempt to stay relevant at times, but it does yield such long standing character gems such as Luke Cage: Hero For Hire, Blade the Vampire Hunter and Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu.
Notable talents of the day includes Jim Starlin, creator of Thanos and godfather of all things “Marvel Cosmic,” and writer Steve Englehart, whose Captain America run controversially steers straight into the then-unfolding Watergate scandal. Jack Kirby even comes back for a stint as his own writer/artist/editor and unleashes some of his wildest creations ever with The Eternals, Devil Dinosaur and the long-overdue solo book debut of Black Panther.
Top honors for the decade, though, probably go to writer Chris Claremont for his work on Uncanny X-Men alongside artists Dave Cockrum and John Byrne. A seeming throwaway from the 1960s, Claremont and company take this title from cancellation and reprint limbo and inadvertently transform it into “the needle” by which the rest of the industry will come to be judged.
As the Bronze Age 1970s wanes, comics are in a strange place. The fly-by-the-seat creative ways of old begin to truly bristle against the corporate-mindedness of the comics industry itself. The corner newsstand and convenience store spinner rack are also met by a new outlet for comic fans: the direct market specialty store. However, from these conditions, there is a rise of the writer/artist auteur and the small and independent press.
Marvel responds in kind by experimenting with formats available only in the new shops – particularly a new line of oversized, bookshelf-style graphic novels. The first offering, by Jim Starlin, is entitled The Death Of Captain Marvel and is, to this day, still considered one of the highest-quality releases of all time.
The creative roster also reflects this kinda one-man-band “rock star”-type flair of the day, as Marvel branches into a line explicitly for creator-owned projects (Epic Illustrated). The regular superhero books are just as equally in the purview, though, with luminaries such as Frank Miller and Walt Simonson making absolute legends of themselves with their works on Daredevil and The Mighty Thor, respectively.
However, Marvel’s greatest hit of the 1980s owes everything to an elaborate advertisement for a line of toys. Attempting to secure placement in the action figure department, toymaker Mattel contacts Marvel armed with research that two words test very well in their target market and thus Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars is born. Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter spearheads the whole affair and it takes on a life larger than anyone possibly could imagine. In terms of comic stories, it’s the origin of Spider-Man’s black costume (and ultimately the legacy of Venom) as well as shaking up the traditionally stable line-up of the Fantastic Four. It’s also the beginning of the “event comic” as a viable concept.
As the direct market proves a deciding factor in the preceding decade, Marvel begins to place a lot of stock in it by the start of the 90s. Gimmicky hologram covers, different-colored variants, polybagged with trading cards- these are the new norms. Not only does it utterly prey on a completist’s fear of missing out, it also turns the casual “tourist” consumer into a hawkish speculator deluded on simple economics yet wholeheartedly convinced they are sending their kids to college with books that some mail order catalog told them are “HOT!” (so, why not order 10, then?).
It doesn’t get there overnight, though. Early benchmarks include Todd McFarlane’s solo outing on a new adjectiveless Spider-Man title, Claremont launching a second X-Men book with artist Jim Lee and controversial wunderkind upstart Rob Liefeld on New Mutants– a book he parlays into his own personal incarnation as X-Force.
Alas, after a few years of doing the whole “more is more” and trying to top the last big thing, the bottom begins to fall out. The first blow comes in 1992 when many of the aforementioned creators and a few others jumped ship to form their own independent business entity: Image Comics. The top talent suddenly becoming direct competition is not something taken lightly nor is it something easily recovered from.
Moving laterally during this hot and heavy marketplace, Marvel makes a few poor business decisions, costing them tremendously and are forced to file for bankruptcy. Qualitatively, there is a severe drop-off in the line and the very existence of a continuing Marvel Universe itself seriously comes into question.
In many respects, this era actually begins in the Fall of 1998 and the launch of the Marvel Knights imprint. Struggling to right the ship through the previous era of disastrous mismanagement, the outsider art team of Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti are brought in to relaunch a tight stable of under-the-radar c-list properties- a rebuild through street clout and acclaim rather than “big gun” splashiness (a tactic that blew up horribly when Marvel re-enlisted Image alumni for the controversial Heroes Reborn line a few years prior).
The anchor of Quesada and Palmiotti’s brand is a reboot of Daredevil, complete with big name director Kevin Smith (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy) handling script duties. It’s not a complete re-invention of the wheel but to say it is well-received would be an understatement. Other notable entries in the line will come to include a humorously self-referential longform political thriller in Christopher Priest’s Black Panther series as well as the brutally back-to-basics “Welcome Back, Frank” story in Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Punisher.
By late 2000, Quesada is the new Editor-in-Chief of all Marvel publishing. Around the same time, Marvel launches the Ultimate Universe– a cleaner, more plug-and-play-friendly version of all the classic properties updated with a modern 21st Century vibe. Its flagship title, Ultimate Spider-Man, is written by then-upcoming indy talent, Brian Michael Bendis.
Bendis is also instrumental in creating another imprint MAX: an adults-only line featuring very “after dark” mature content. The lead book is called Alias by Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos. The protagonist is a troubled ex-superhero private investigator named Jessica Jones.
Quesada also fully takes the reins of the era and entirely removes Marvel from the orbit of the Comics Code, in favor of an internal self-policing structure. The results are instantly felt within the X-franchise, yielding the wild and gory in Peter Milligan and Mike and Laura Allred’s X-Force and bleeding edge insanity of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men.
Following Morrison, TV and film creator Joss Whedon steps in for an extended tour with artist John Cassaday on Astonishing X-Men– another highlight of the decade.
Indeed, getting high-end creators on limited term/ high impact projects seems to be the norm of the day here. At the same time, this is the era in which the “event comic as all-encompassing linewide phenomenon” really cements hard. And these two streams converge like nobody’s business in 2007’s Civil War!
The brainchild of Ultimates writer Mark Millar, this is a story unlike very few in Marvel’s long and extensive canon. Sure, it spills out into a billion tie-ins and whatnot, but at its core, the entire story is right there in the main book. You don’t need supplemental volume x, y and z (unless you want them, of course). Plus, there is a severe lack of mustache-twirling villain pulling everyone’s strings- it’s genuinely two defensible ideologies running up against each other and things getting out of hand. Finally, a Marvel comic you can take to high school civics!
In late 2009, Disney becomes Marvel’s new parent company. Things don’t seem so different at first but over time that will change. At the beginning of the decade, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is also only just beginning to coalesce with Phase One. In early 2011, Quesada passes the EiC baton over to Alex Alonso.
The multimedia and digital format comic book-movie synergy dynamic takes little a while to get cooking and really only gets going around the time of the first Avengers movie in 2012. To this end, Marvel offers one of their most accessible comics for movie audiences: Avengers Assemble by Bendis and his Ultimate Spider-Man collaborator, Mark Bagley. The Movie Avengers and the Movie Guardians team up against Thanos for the Tesseract- ‘nuff said!
As fluffy and popcorn-y as that piece is, by contrast, the Alonso-era is also marked just as much by extremely bold creative choices and ensuing divisive backlash. Of course the most massive undertaking in this respect is Jonathan Hickman’s 2015 Secret Wars and its elaborate build-up in multiple titles beforehand (Avengers, New Avengers, Fantastic Four)- seeing the “for realz- this is seriously happening” death and rebirth of the entire Marvel Multiverse!
However, for as much as the MCU becomes the new tail wagging the old dog, the comics continue to just as often lean into a “you won’t get this in this movies” kind of experience. Artsy, low-key, slice-of-life-styles of storytelling with decidedly toned down superheroics become a sort of unspoken new standard and Matt Fraction and company’s Hawkeye series becomes the new yardstick.
Indeed, this era is very much marked with efforts to recapture the familiar in a fresh, new way- possibly opening up concepts to introduce hitherto excluded perspectives and see where things go from there. Ideally, that seems the intent anyway. Breakout examples of this would be the legacy characters of a new teenage Muslim Ms. Marvel and the African-American/Hispanic teenager Miles Morales, the new Ultimate Spider-Man.
Another fantastic example of this “flip the script” narrative on the concept of “legacy” is Jason Aaron’s expansive Thor volumes. For four years, he has the Odinson more or less sidelined with his place taken by cancer-stricken mortal, Jane Foster. As the lady Thor, Jane fights constantly and tirelessly for the safety of the realms, however, her every transformation is actually robbing the chemotherapy from her body and killing her. And she can’t and won’t stop fighting. Ever. Because Thor.
In late 2017, Alonso steps away from Marvel. By late Spring 2017, the ever-prolific Bendis’ last title has shipped. CB Cebulski becomes the newest EiC and Marvel begins on a “Fresh Start” initiative, relaunching titles with a new slate of creators taking over near across the board. A year in, they’re still managing to keep it fresh. The landscape may seem familiar enough for the most part but the twist and turns are truly still all-new and all-different. But that’s the beauty in this- it just gets handed off to the next person and we’re off again on the next thing with hopefully something new in the mix before you know it. And would we have it any other way?
Here’s to facing front and making it mine (and I hope yours) for another 80 years. Excelsior!