MARVEL COMICSPrimary Product: Comic Books
Producing Since: 1939
Noted For: Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Captain America, X-Men, Avengers, and much, much more
Please contribute to its necessary financial support.
Amazon.com or PayPal
its contemporaries in the burgeoning comic book industry, it was an anthology title with an emphasis on superheroes. This is the comic that introduced The Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, The Angel, Ka-Zar and other characters to the comics-reading world — but more important, it introduced a company that would eventually grow to be an industry giant.
Marvel Comics may have been the name of the comic (for one issue, anyway — with #2, it became Marvel Mystery Comics), but it wasn't the name of the publisher. In fact, there wasn't any one name the publisher was known by for any great length of time until the 1950s, when, for several consecutive years, it used "Atlas" as an imprint. It put a "Marvel Comics" logo on its covers for a couple of brief periods in the late '40s, but didn't assume that name once and for all until 1963. Among the dozens of company names it used over the years was "Timely". For some reason, many comic book historians refer to the company's entire 1940s output as Timely Comics, despite the fact that, as pointed out by comics historian Mike Benton, it used that name only for three months in 1942.
Let's just call it Marvel.
Whatever its name was, it succeeded with its initial offering. Within a year, The Human Torch had a comic of his own, and half a year after that, so did Sub-Mariner. Their third prominent hero, Captain America, debuted in his own comic in 1941, and so did more anthology titles — All Winners Comics, USA Comics, and more. Marvel exploited the superhero trend to the hilt — then dropped it like a hot potato when it was no longer paying off. By 1949, those titles had all bit the dust. But by then, they'd been replaced with teenage humor (e.g., Patsy Walker and Millie the Model), westerns (such as Two-Gun Kid and Kid Colt, Outlaw), funny animals (including Super Rabbit and Ziggy Pig & Silly Seal) and other trendy genres.
A younger relative of Goodman, Stanley Lieber, joined the company in 1941. As Stan Lee, he stayed with Marvel over half a century and is associated with it even today. As editor and chief writer, he oversaw its rise to greatness in the 1960s, and to a large extent, it was Lee's personality that formed Marvel's public face during that time. It is no exaggeration to say that without Stan Lee, Marvel Comics as we know it would not exist.
The other person to whom we owe Marvel's current existence is artist Jack Kirby. During the 1950s, comic book sales plummeted to a fraction of what they had once been. Most of the companies that had flourished during the boom years of the early '40s disappeared, and Marvel could easily have been one of them. In fact, a story is told about Kirby dropping by the office in the late '50s to look for work, and finding Lee preparing to close up the shop. Kirby, who had a tremendous track record for creating successful comics, talked Lee into keeping it running a little while longer to see if the Kirby touch might help.
Apparently, it did. During the early 1960s, as had been the case 20 years before, Marvel rode the crest of a wave of superheroes. The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The X-Men, Thor, The Avengers and many others debuted during that period — and most were created as collaborations between Lee and Kirby.
So popular were the 1960s Marvels, the company could probably have become the industry's dominant publisher, if not for a distributor contract that limited the number of comics it could release in any given month. That limit came to an end in 1968, sparking a sudden explosion of new titles and characters. By the mid-1970s, Marvel was America's number one comic book company.
Martin Goodman remained Marvel's publisher until 1968, joined in later years by his son, Chip. Finally, they sold the company to Cadence Industries. They were back in the comics business a few years later, with a short-lived company called Atlas, but meanwhile, Marvel had made the transition from a family-owned business to a corporation. It changed ownership several times over the next couple of decades, and eventually wound up in the hands of junk bond czar Ron Perelman.
And that's when the chaos began. Characteristically, Perelman gutted the company to shore up his own financial house of cards. A series of business decisions that could most kindly be called "questionable", combined with industry-wide unfavorable trends, led to Marvel's 1996 declaration of bankruptcy.
Today, Marvel is still a huge comics publisher, although its biggest rival, DC Comics, has taken full advantage of its weakness to grab market share. Now that Perelman is gone, it's well on its way to emerging from bankruptcy. Its holdings include theme parks, theme restaurants, trading card companies, toy manufacturers and more, although there's no telling how much of that will be left when the dust clears.
One thing, however, is certain. Those 1960s characters, most of which were created by Lee and Kirby, continue to be popular. Whatever else may happen, Marvel still has that.
Marvel Comics articles in Don Markstein's Toonopedia: