With great power comes great responsibility to not be a douche. That never stopped Marvel Comics, though.
In the 1930's newsstands, drug stores and the sticky mattresses of the lonely were stuffed to the gills with pulp adventure and romance magazines. The company that would become DC Comics (read: Detective Comics Comics) had made a mint already with Superman and Batman comic books, and Martin Goodman (probably editor of such ribald pulps as Murder Stories, Love Mysteries, Creepy Kill and Unedited Tales) decided to get in on the action. In time his company would follow DC's lead and rename themselves after one of their early successes: Marvel Comics.
How'd it get burned?!
Marvel was lucky enough to start up at almost the exact beginning of World War II. Their biggest characters to date had been a man who could live in fire and a man who could live in water. Plans were scrapped for a man who could live on the ground and Joe Simon and Jack Kirby promptly turned their attention to creating Captain America, one of a series of patriotic super soldiers (with some of the others also created by Simon) determined to crush Hitler's neck beneath his very own boot with the help of his too-young-to-vote sidekick. Crimefighters and superheroes exploded during this period, along with war comics and the early blossoming of the western and romance trends. In addition to writer Joe Simon this era also saw the debut of a young Stanley Lieber who was certain he'd go on to becoming a famous novelist, rather than spend an entire lifetime pumping out bullshit stories about half-robot Nazis. More on him later.
Following the war the bubble burst on barely-clothed beefcakes twith nubile boy sidekicks, leading Marvel to diversify with more westerns and romance books. Marvel (and DC for that matter) quickly stole all of their competitor EC Comics' ideas before putting them out of business, creating titles like Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, and Journey Into Mystery that featured tamer versions of the kind of stories found in EC's Tales From The Crypt. These stories tended toward either the giant-monster-and-or-aliens-invade model or the M. Night Shyamalan-Rod Serling-O. Henry-ironic-twist model. One of these titles was Amazing Adult Fantasy; again, more on that later.
It's impossible to talk about Marvel Comics without talking about Stanley Martin Lieber, known to most people under the pen name Stan Lee. The very public, friendly face of Marvel Comics, Stan was the Hugh Hefner of comic books. In his depictions of working-class heroes and fuckup geniuses Stan captured the spirit of the maladjusted "special boy" inside many a comic reader. In his direct addresses to the Marvel readers through letter pages and Stan's Soapbox, his language shows a penchant for alliteration, hyperbole, self deprecation, and flashy nicknames.
Stan Lee is tripping off his goddamned balls. Excelsior!
Lee's Fantastic Four ushered in a return for Marvel, both to superheroes and profitability. Embarked upon due to a conversation Goodwin had with the editors of DC over golf, the Fantastic Four struck a chord with readers as a quartet of self-aware, bickering supermen with distinct personalities and speech rhythms. This set Marvel apart from DC's catalogue, filled with similar acting and sounding goody-goody Super Uncles, and with their move from a fictional metropolis to New York City the standard Marvel superhero formula was cemented.
Stan's writing is often criticized today. His shoddy memory led to many characters' alliterative names (hence Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Doctor Victor Von Doom). He also cops to basing personalities or diction for most characters on famous movie stars (e.g. Jimmy Durante becomes Benjamin J. Grimm, a.k.a. the Thing). The process of putting together a given book from concept to page was incredibly slapdash, leading to gaping plot holes, inconsistent characters and buildings being fired into space. This is where Stan's famous No-Prizes came in; if a fan could come up with a logical explanation for a gaffe in a Marvel comic, Stan would award him a No-Prize, which was kind of a dick thing to do. In time Marvel would even mail the fans envelopes containing absolutely nothing, polishing the dick move into a glossy sheen.
As integral as Stan was to Marvel's history and success as a company, it's not the whole story. As important or more so were his collaborators, all of whom Stan dressed up in the credits with stylish nicknames. There was Jack "The King" Kirby, "Dazzlin'" Steve Ditko, "Jazzy" John Romita, D.J. "Jazzy" Jeff, Don "Hoedown" Heck, Gene "The Dean" Colan, Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, "Baby Face" George Nelson, and John "Buckaroo Banzai" Buscema among others. Stan's own self-appointed title was that of "The Man."
All of the writers and artists, including Stan's brother Larry, can be said to have had tremendous impact on the formative years of Marvel's modern image. It's no stretch to say that chief among these would be Jack Kirby. Kirby is, in the eyes of many fans, the true author of the more novel and creative developments at Marvel and seemed to draw about a thousand pages a month at any given time. He and Stan did some 100 issues of Fantastic Four alone. Jack's work peppered Marvel's entire history, but he is perhaps best remembered for his 50's monster mags, his down-to-earth superheroes in intensely exotic milieus, and his post-DC comeback when every series he worked on was an allusion to man's relationship to God. For those of you who have never read a comic book, try to imagine him as a Jewish Tom Cruise.
Man can be his own god. Did...did you know that?
The key collaborative process used by Stan and the rest of the Bullpen has come to be known as the Marvel Method. Ostensibly, the Marvel Method meant that the writer came up with a basic plot, the penciler drew whatever he wanted as long as it corresponded to that plot, and the writer went back over the penciled pages and filled in captions and dialogue. In reality, anecdotal evidence suggests it went more like, "Jack Kirby tried to debut 20 new characters and giant aliens a page, Stan drove a convertible and told Jack which characters had crushes on each other, Steve Ditko wrote in the margins of The Fountainhead."
Marvel is purported to hold thousands of different intellectual properties, though admittedly some of those are things like a cyborg trucker an outer-space trucker. Marvel's stable of heroes are among the best known in the world.
Over the course of the years this roster has grown to include Captain America, The Fantastic Four, Hulk, Thor, Daredevil, Spider-Man, Nick Fury, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Ant Man (see Garrett Morris), the X-Men, the Inhumans, the Eternals, the Silver Surfer, the Defenders, the Punisher, Ghost Rider, Blade, Spider-Woman, She-Hulk, Howard the Duck, Elektra, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, Black Panther, and many, many more. Marvel writers were also responsible for concocting the back story and character personalities for the G.I. Joe and Transformers franchises, as well as producing Muppet Babies. The publishing arm of the company also extended to Marvel UK, creating characters like Death's Head whose continuity is designed to make even the biggest nerd's brain explode.
Appearing first in Amazing Fantasy #15, Spider-Man is held to be the archetypical Marvel hero, even the archetypical modern hero. Just an ordinary guy, Spidey found his super hero life constantly hampered by real life problems like supervillains marrying his elderly aunt in order to inherit a hydrogen bomb. Spidey's youth was also relatively unheard of at the time; sixteen year old boys were sidekicks, or maybe occasionally Congressional pages, but not super heroes. The intervening decades have seen endless variations on this same theme, about half of them from Marvel itself (see Nova, Darkhawk, Gravity, Spider Girl, et al).
Pride Day at the Cracked offices.
A few neat tidbits from the history of Marvel Comics:
-In the 60's several of their star characters had to share titles, as Marvel was being distributed by their Direct Competitor, who limited their influence on the market by only permitting Marvel a limited number of titles.
-DC had sued rival company Whiz Comics and successfully shut down their popular Captain Marvel series. After a time and a few non-starting characters with that name, Marvel decided that they should have the rights to CAPTAIN Marvel for obvious reasons. They quickly put together an alien adventurer to secure rights to the name just as DC comics, who had purchased Whiz comics' properties, was ready to bring back the original "Shazam!"-shouting Captain Marvel. As a compromise, Marvel retains rights to the name Captain Marvel and DC may refer to the original CM by name within its comics. However, in merchandise, promotional materials, and multimedia the character is often referred to as simply Shazam. Even his own comic book series is referred to as "The Power of Shazam" or "The Trials of Shazam" or what have you.
-Having had a part in the creation of the Comics Code Authority, a Hayes-like body to self-regulate comic book content, Marvel took a stand against their own rules during a controversial storyline where Peter Parker's friend Harry starts taking drugs. Marvel published the anti-drug story without code approval, though the book was still distributed. The acclaim for the storyline's message (there are reports of people teaching it in elementary classrooms) was one of several key factors that led to a re-writing of the CCA to make it less strict, leading to popular Marvel series like Tomb of Dracula and Giant Size Man-Thing. Yes, you just read that.
-Speaking of Man-Thing, writer Steve Gerber debuted cult icon Howard the Duck in the pages of Man-Thing. The character's popularity surpassed comics, such as during his run for the Presidency. Gerber never conceded that Marvel had ownership rights to Howard, going as far as to scribble out the work-for-hire ownership clause on the back of his paychecks. Howard's resemblance to Donald Duck prompted a suit from Disney, the unusual consequence of which was that Marvel could publish Howard for as long as they wanted as long as Howard started wearing pants. With that resolved, Marvel was free to get into a legal dispute over the rights to Howard with Steve Gerber. A settlement was reached but the details remain closed.
-Publishing many tie-ins for toys, movies, and cartoons in the 80's, Marvel's greatest success story was perhaps ROM, Spaceknight of Galador. A gray plastic turd with magnetic hands, Marvel turned the series into a space opera that lasted over 75 issues. Not only did the title feature guest stars galore, both major Marvel stars and minor ones, but the title's plots spilled over into other series and the Dire Wraiths, the requisite evil alien slugs, became Marvel mainstays. Though Marvel lost the rights to Rom, preventing a series revival, the character and some cast have been seen since, referred to as "spaceknight" or "Hey, there he is!" This is a recurring problem with licensed properties, leading Marvel to salvage Transformers characters Circuit Breaker and Death's Head by publishing them in backups prior to their debut in Transformers.
-In 1997 Marvel Comics, bloated with hemorrhaging properties like Panini, Heroes World, and Toy Biz, went into a Chapter 11 bankruptcy from which they eventually recovered. Interestingly there is no more reference to this piece of information (which informed business decisions at Marvel for the better part of a decade) on their Wikipedia page, so it's like it never happened, OoOoOoOoOoooo…
-In the early part of the new millennium Joe Simon successfully sued for partial rights to Captain America, though the specifics of the settlement are under wraps.
-A few years ago Marvel sued game developer Cryptic Studios to protect its trademark, claiming they had infringed on their IP rights by giving players too much freedom with the character creation engine for City of Heroes, allowing them to replicate and play as Marvel Comics characters. The court ruled against Marvel's claims. Shortly thereafter Marvel and Cryptic announced a partnership in the creation of the Marvel Universe MMORPG. This has since fallen apart; Marvel is out of the MMORPG game while Cryptic moved on to another well-known superhero franchise, the table-top RPG Champions (A company Marvel had previously sued over rights to the name Champions).
-A current (2/4/09) lawsuit is pending against Stan Lee and Marvel from aborted internet startup Stan Lee Media, claiming Marvel and Stan owe them a substantial portion of Marvel movie money. Since Stan has no partial ownership of the characters and receives only royalties any more (and he had to sue Marvel to get those!) it's likely Stan Lee Media is fucking retarded, since Stan could never explicitly or implicitly sign over rights he did not have.
Marvel Comics enthusiasts have been referred to over the years as Marvel Zombies, partly because zombies have a one-track mind and, for fans of Marvel, nothing else will do. There have been several popular fan organizations including the Merry Marvel Marching Society, Wild Agents of Marvel (MMMS for the x-treme 90's) and Friends Of Old Marvel (FOOM). The newsletters and fanzines for these groups (particularly FOOM) are fondly recalled today; many comics professionals can be found as letter hacks and contributors in those old 'zines.
The Marvel Comics style, naturalist-humanist mixed with trippy cosmic metaphysics, has always attracted an unusual fan base. In the 60's Stan liked to boast about the comics being passed around and discussed on college campuses. It was in the 70's that Marvel's heroes started becoming not just comic book icons but pop icons embraced by American counter-culture. This sort of fan relationship helped engender feelings within the company of near-godhood; "People only really want Marvel Comics and any other sales are side effects," that sort of thing. It's an attitude that never quite stopped permeating Marvel's strategies and attitudes.
Marvel is sometimes known by the self-appointed nickname "the House of Ideas" but today it could as easily be known as "the House That Blade Built." After decades of truncated animated series (as well as the Spider-Man and Hulk live action shows) and a few miserably movie efforts, the 90's started to click slightly with successful cartoons for both the X-Men and Spider-Man. It wasn't until Blade, a relatively minor property with a relatively low budget, managed to make a nice wad of money while not being entirely lambasted by critics that it seemed bringing Marvel to the big screen in style might indeed be possible. On the heels of Blade and the similarly-black-leather-happy Matrix (which boasted storyboards by Spider-Man artist Steve Skroce and has been accused of lifting ideas from the Vertigo Comics series The Invisibles) Marvel's mighty mutants, the X-Men, premiered to thunderous applause from pretty much everybody except the hardcore fanboy base and probably Cahiers du Cinema.
The X-Men's success and the freeing up of Spider-Man's film rights led to a super hero movie rights gold rush that (following the success of 300) still continues to this day. To date Marvel has produced 4 theatrical X-Men movies, 3 Spider-Man movies, 2 Hulk movies, an Iron Man movie, 3 Blade movies, 3 Punisher movies, and a few other TV movies over the years. Marvel has also ventured into direct-to-DVD territory, first with Man-Thing and then with animated features, like Ultimate Avengers and Doctor Strange.
There have been a slew of video games over the years and if you take away nothing else from this page let it be this: caveat emptor.
Never mind that 16+, this game warns you right in the title.
As of this writing, Marvel Comics (under purview of publisher Dan Buckley and editor in chief Joe Quesada) is enjoying an unprecedented level of exposure and cultural influence, reaching across the globe to entirely new audiences. More a multimedia company built around a publishing wing, Marvel's films, video games, animation, clothing products, and commemorative plates can be found everywhere with fans male and female, old and young, black and Jew. Marvel also has their own island on Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure, featuring a Hulk coaster and a Spider-Man 3D motion simulator vomitorium.
Controversy and exposure seem to be the watch-words of Marvel Comics today. Sometimes it's just the sniping back and forth between Marvel and DC Comics, sometimes it's a "ripped from the headlines" approach, with recent crossovers ham-fistedly addressing racism, Republicans, and illegal immigrants in the usual "imagine the problem is an evil mutant" Marvel manner. This has brought Marvel a large amount of media exposure in the past decade which, considering there are some nine 24-hour cable news channels, is only slightly surprising. The death of Captain America and the dissolution of Spider-Man's marriage via a literal deal with the devil made headlines around the country. Marvel's numerous appearances on The Colbert Report to address some of these stories led to an appearance by Stephen Colbert in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man, a comic book that also recently played host to President Barack Obama.
Spider-Man meets Jay Leno and Bill Murray in The 5 Most Insane Celebrity Comic Book Cameos.
Everying is illuminated (with radiation) in Marvel Comics vs. Science: 5 Most Absurd Super Hero Origins.
Have some incest and rape, courtesy of The 6 Creepiest Comic Book Characters of All Time.
Starfox gets what's coming to him in The 7 Most Hilariously Mismatched Super Hero Battles.
Marvel teams up with Kiss for The 7 Most Gruesome Rock and Roll Legends and Whether or Not They're True.
Marvel writer Mark Gruenwald tops Kiss in 13 Last Requests That Prove It's OK to Laugh at Dead People.
GO ANT MAN! Read The 5 Super Hero Movie Scenes They'll Never Let You See.
Marvel dominates the list of The 6 Worst Comic Book Super Husbands; take that, DC!
Marvel ranks #1 in The 8 Least Threatening Comic Book Villains but, despite the fucking Whizzer, can't compete with DC in The 7 Crappiest Super Heroes in Comic Book History.