Mundane concerns such as Spring cleaning, groundskeeping efforts, trying to get back into the swing of screenwriting, getting the car’s air-conditioning working again, and preparing to take on a new day job for at least the immediate future, have had me pretty preoccupied this month of May, 2013. But, I also hurt my back enough to actually need more than two weeks to fully recover — simply from bending to place some dishes in the dishwasher! All of life comes to resemble a booby-trap over time, it seems.
Anyway, this incident gave me some flat-on-my back time for several days, during which I read Marvel Comics, the Untold Story, by Sean Howe.
I was a comic book enthusiast from around age five. They were among the first things I read as soon as I was able to read. My 25-cents-per week allowance for taking out the trash was enough for me to buy two comic books every week. It didn’t take long to notice there were these clean and polished books from DC with occasional educational captions might mention a real landmark or scientific fact. DC featured the obviously great and admirable Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and more. I liked superheroes immediately. They represented justice, high ideals, and the power to set things right. Those were all things I desperately wanted. Besides, the costumes, the drawings, the stories, were all more entertaining than school or most of television.
“We can’t keep putting out this crap for long,” publisher Martin Goodman had reportedly said to a comic-book artist in 1940. But, as of the early ‘Sixties, his company was about to get another new customer for the “crap” — me.
When I was in early grade school, there were a number of brands on the circular metal-racks towers at the drug store. There was a line called Dell Comics and (a spin-off) Gold Key on the racks, too, which might feature cartoon characters, or adaptations of live-action TV shows or adventure novels. Classics Illustrated featured adaptations of stories from classic literature. Charlton Comics, like DC, offered superheroes and other titles, and ACG, American Comics Group offered a slyly humorous, usually short-lived lampoonish set of superheroes. Archie Comics featured the teenagers of Riverdale High in cartoonish encounters. I sampled these brands sometimes, with the exception of Classics Illustrated. If I wanted to read a classic, and I did from time to time, I read the actual novel.
But, the loudest, brashest, freshest example of comic books a superhero fan could be interested in after 1962 were published under an imprint called Marvel Comics. It’s well-known how Marvel made its mark as an innovator in a publishing field which had had the life scared out of it by a witch hunt analogous to the McCarthyite Red Scare, the one against comics led by a psychiatrist named Frederic Wertham. Wertham may have had a point in being concerned about violent imagery in mass media; how can an overkill bounty of “witnessed” beheadings and dismemberments not, at the least, desensitize a human being? But, it’s easy to overstate the “monkey see, monkey do” aspect of childhood at a literate stage, and Wertham went after the easy meat of comic books and justified his notoriety-generating crusade, on the basis that he was attempting to save America from the scourge of juvenile delinquency. It’s true enough that the comics publishers had lent plenty of credence to the motto that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. Now, their enemy was proving the same, to their detriment.
The American government was never afraid to put restrictions on its citizens’ freedom, having already tried banning the consumption of alcohol nationwide, the transmission of nude imagery through the mail, or the description of sexuality in literature. The whole system, from cradle to grave, was (largely still is, of course) geared toward manufacturing wide-eyed rubes, ready to work hard on command without being distracted by animal self-interests of any kind. As the Hays Code had been adopted by Hollywood to get government off their backs, the comic book industry a couple of decades later was forming a censorship committee for their products as a pre-emptive measure against governmental action.
Howe’s book steps into the situation well after that wave of hysteria and the damage done. The Comics Code Authority had been formed, a review group paid for by the companies within the industry. “Dell Comics is good comics” published without the code seal at the top right corner of their covers, saying bad content had been pre-eliminated from their books so there was no need to regulate it. Gad, they were correct, as anyone able to leaf through their product could attest. It was a pretty lifeless product they were publishing.
What made Marvel a great comics company for about six years in the 1960s (that’s my assessment) was their creation of a sense of possibilities for comic books again. Without that, there is no real sense of discovery or wonder. If you’re going to be interested in this medium, there has to be the chance that when you turn the corner, you’ll be in uncharted territory. The Code’s strictures went a long way to preventing that.
DC tried to created interest in their comic books through a sort of “ingenuity” as a running theme. We knew we’d end up the same as when we started with any particular issue. We knew a costumed super-villain, more likely with faux high-tech gadgets, rather than super-strength or some more exotic super-power, would be the adversary to defeat, and that the goal of the villain would most likely be on the order of a grand jewel heist or a bank robbery; if not, they would try to lure their heroic adversary into a death trap. They were guaranteed to fail by the Code. And plots were contrived so that Superman, Batman, or the Flash generally had to “match wits” with their villainous adversaries in order to win. They couldn’t just use their superior speed and strength to pummel them into submission, as in pre-Code days.
Wertham described the Comics Code Authority as “inadequate.” To the creators of comic books, it was draconian. I see it as a mixed curse. One of the things I was looking for in comics was ideals and their fulfillment, if only on the printed page. If a child gets the notion from comic-books that the police are always honorable servants of the public, that judges are honest, etc., they’re not going to doubt it when television and their parents convey the same messages. Truly, fear of consequence from the law, coupled with the idea that the law is equal to Justice, in other words, is always right, is a great way to discourage juvenile delinquency, all right. It’s hard to me to guess what more Dr. Wertham would have demanded of the Code. As life went on, I went through the usual disillusionments and then some, but comics books helped me have hope for years. I might, of course, been less disillusioned as an adult had I never harbored any illusions. Luckily, my progress in acquiring sad, worldly wisdom never bent me seriously toward a life of crime.
As adopted in 1954, the Code laid down these rules:
- Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
- If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity.
- Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.
- Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation.
- In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.
- Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gunplay, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated.
- No comic magazine shall use the words “horror” or “terror” in its title.
- All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.
- All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.
- Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.
- Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.
- Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden.
- Nudity in any form is prohibited, as is indecent or undue exposure.
- Suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture is unacceptable.
- Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.
- Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Rape scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.
- Seduction and rape shall never be shown or suggested.
- Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden.
- Nudity with meretricious purpose and salacious postures shall not be permitted in the advertising of any product; clothed figures shall never be presented in such a way as to be offensive or contrary to good taste or morals.
These were probably good ideas for children’s comics. But it’s hard for a modern, freethinking adult not to bristle at some of the listings, at least. Some of us, eventually, actually notice that criminals are running the world from high positions, robbing entire populations of natural resources and tapping their bank accounts to make up from defrauding nations, all while laundering the proceeds of the drug trade through their institutions. Police brutality can be found in hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos, and those are inevitably going to be a small sampling of what is going on out there. There are homosexuals in the world, often seemingly civilized… take your pick. It was censorship, and not pretending to be anything else. But, comic books were, it was always assumed, for children, read only during their formative years, then, after age 10 or so, cast aside forever. Let’s, we adults who are too good for such trash, give ourselves every chance to sleep in our own beds all through the night without having our throats slashed, shall we?
The stricture which specifically “eliminated” “brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gunplay, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime” was really designed to eliminate E.C. Comics, which were based on those very things and on supernatural horror such as the “walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism.” The most graphic and unfettered of them all, EC Comics had been a trouble magnet at the solitary Congressional hearing on comic books, and the company had to virtually go out of business with the adoption of the Code system by comics publishers. E.C. took one comic book title, Mad, and repackaged it into the famous and enduring satire magazine eventually acquired by DC Comics after the death of E.C. publisher William Gaines.
From my vantage point, there were some likable things about DC Comics, and some likable things about Marvel Comics. DC was light and lively and occasionally well-researched, even a bit educational, had four more pages devoted to story than Marvel did, and was “reassuring” to read. Marvel was heavy and ponderous by comparison, but witty and packed with a sense of power, dynamic action, and possibility for the real world it seemed to be depicted in. I devoted my precious allowance to each company’s output, roughly fifty-fifty. DC’s “smooth” and Marvel’s “rough” balanced out just fine for my personality.
That the Comics Code loosened up and became elasticized in its standards over time, until its eventual dismantlement in the past few years, is attributable largely to Marvel Comics. Marvel Comics was subversive and progressive in subtle ways.
The brand was launched as a reaction to DC having teamed its most popular superheroes as The Justice League of America. Martin Goodman’s Magazine Management Company had been publishing comic books since 1939, the year after Superman’s debut at National Periodical Publications had caused a sensation. Even then, with Superman a rough-and-ready character likely to throw a dictator through the air, off-panel and presumably to his death, Bill Everett’s Sub-Mariner, over in Timely Comics, might murder fishermen, cops, or break off the spires of skyscrapers and thrown them down onto the streets of New York in his rampages. New York — not Metropolis. In his early adventures, the Human Torch, then not a human being at all but an android dreamed up by Carl Burgos, would take the simple, direct route of burning his common-crook enemies to death. Hm. Having been, since 1954, trying to get by on Romance, Westerns, War, and Monsters (mainly of the ’50s sci-fi, Godzilla variety), what was then called Timely or Atlas Comics was on the brink of being shut down due to poor sales by Goodman, who had had most of the staff laid off in 1957 when he discovered a closet full of decade-old filler which had never been used and wondered why he was paying good money to have writers and artists turn out new schlock when he already had a closet full of old schlock he could use.
His nephew by marriage, Stan Lee, who, except during an enlisted period during World War II, had been with the company since 1940, was now editor-in-chief, and was in despair over the seemingly-inevitable doom of the company in which he’d made a career. But Goodman had seen the potential in what DC had done with “Justice League” and ordered Lee to come up with a superhero team, in a comics universe whose superheroes, at that moment, included… Henry Pym, the Ant Man.
Stan tasked his number one workhorse artist, Jack Kirby, into coming up with something. Or else, Kirby made a suggestion. After a time, this sort of thing became he-said / he-said, because Stan Lee was set up to become pretty darn wealthy from Marvel Comics, whereas Jack Kirby, the art-and-conceptualizing sensation who create the Marvel 1960’s-70’s “house style,” made good rates on his paychecks compared to the average creator, but was ultimately only set up to become embittered.
JLA got a brief test run in The Brave and the Bold, a team-up or try-out feature comic DC ran for many years before getting its own title. But the concept was a smashing success for the company who had started revamping superheroes and bringing them out of obscurity, beginning with The Flash in 1956, considered the start of the “Silver Age” of comics.
Compare the design of the JLA’s debut with that of Lee & Kirby’s response in Fantastic Four #1:
Notice, there’s no “Marvel Comics” logo. It would be hard to tell who had published this thing if you saw it on the newsstand. And, design-wise? Give it up for the Justice League, hands down. The Marvel product looks clunky, murky, generally untidy, and even illogical. Susan Storm, top left, in the grip of one of Timely’s typical monsters, wails that she “can’t turn invisible fast enough.” She’s asking “Torch,” flying in at center, how they can stop the creature. Her then-boyfriend, the middle-aged Reed Richards, lying down in the lower right, has evidently been tied up while waiting for the monster to barge into the surface world, so he’s bending like rubber to slip out of some ropes. He’s saying it’ll take more than ropes to keep Mr. Fantastic out of action. Oooooh, tremble, monster! You get the idea that the “Torch” and the orange, lumpy guy calling himself “The Thing” might at least be able to do something. The half-visible woman’s about to be squashed, and the rubbery dude on the ground is probably going to provide a morsel for this giant monster in the next second, though.
But, the contrasts were a hint of what was going to provide Marvel the edge in the final analysis. The five DC superheroes depicted as the JLA were all characters known to possess impressive super-powers as seen in their own comic strips (Aquaman and The Martian Manhunter) or books.(Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman). The Fantastic Four were more of a mystery. But, it was more than that. They weren’t wearing costumes, so you got the idea they were “real people” in a way that the colorful Justice League members were not. Another thing was Jack Kirby’s art. This was not one of his more impressive examples, actually, but it was telling. There was gritty, realistic detail in the buildings he did draw in (foreground only, everything was always a rush job in the comic-book biz because its creators were doing piecework) which contrasted strongly with the gleaming, futuristic Central City see in The Flash, for example. (Ironically, for this first issue, Central City was said to be the stomping grounds for the Fantastic Four.) Another thing, that gray blob at lower left, if you look closely, is actually a wrecked automobile, and if you check it out, you can see that Kirby has done a great job of depicting a wrecked automobile, complete with engine, where most comic-book artists from 1938 to the present would have drawn something resembling melted cheese.
Marvel’s characters were not all Miss Manners polite, seamlessly slipping out of professional lives to save the day with their superheroics, accept the thanks of the police chief or the key to the city from the mayor and reappear in their civilian secret identities in the last two panels to deliver a pun and a wink to the reader. They had gripes, often about each other, which they aired loudly, and doubts about themselves, too. They had problems raising the rent money or concealing the fact that they uncontrollably became super-strong monsters on a rampage. They might not defeat the bad guy by the end of the issue (they generally did by the end of the continued stories they began to run after their first three years). Even the “god” character among them, Thor, was torn between love for a mortal and the duties of his heritage, which included what had been foretold to be a vain effort to stave off Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods. Trouble and evil didn’t just pipe up and get put down in Marvel Comics. They were part of each character’s personality and daily life. These characters often seemed to struggle against a greater futility than any superpower could touch. Yet, there was a sense of grandeur and awe in the pages of Marvel Comics that only grew and developed in Marvel Comics, thanks mainly to the vast curiosity and imagination of Jack Kirby, but also enabled by the brooding look at mysticism provided by fellow artist Steve Ditko, the “Dr. Strange” artist who had made Peter Parker’s high school life so crammed with troubles and neuroses in Amazing Spider-Man.
Marvel, combining these story elements with Stan Lee’s genuine talents for creating a legend and a club atmosphere for readers of the books, set itself way apart from the pack, and, despite the second-rate paper and printer ink used in their manufacture, generated a popular sensation among young readers which would probably have overwhelmed DC in sales from about the mid-1960s onward. But, though Marvel did achieve that goal, the company had to wait until the 1970s for that level of success. When Goodman’s distributor had cut its wholesale periodical division in response to a Justice Dept. investigation into monopolistic practices, Timely was forced to publish no more than eight comics per month when it found a new distributor which was owned by its competitor, DC. Marvel operated under that same restriction until its sale toward the end of the 1960s, to a company which had acquired a publishing distributor. So, in the 1960s, Marvel was, indirectly, under the thumb of its competitor, DC. That’s one reason several of its books were divided between two features.
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story tells what happened behind the scenes at Marvel over the decades from its brand inception until its acquisition in 2009 by The Walt Disney Company. It was a very rocky road.
One of Marvel’s perennial concerns was keeping copyrignt to the characters it owned as “work for hire” done by the artists. Marvel actually stamped a statement on the backs of the paychecks it issued its freelancers which it considered “contracts” to that effect. The very month in 1965 that Marvel’s 28-year copyright for the original, android “Human Torch” character created by Carl Burgos was about to expire, they published a Fantastic Four Giant story in which he appeared, so they could renew their copyright. The android lived for one issue, then was killed off again. It’s as if they had known that Carl Burgos had stood, poised, to register the copyright for himself. His daughter said that, beside himself at that point, he made a bonfire of his Marvel Comics.
As the same thing was happening with the “Captain America” copyright, they portrayed it (probably correctly) as a power play by Joe Simon which would cut Kirby out of any benefit, and had Jack Kirby, the artistic co-creator of the character, sign an affidavit stating that it was his understanding that they were doing work for hire, so as to bolster their own claim of ownership in the character. Such scenes were repeated, in and out of court, at various times over the years. The creators were faced with a sort of “prisoner’s dilemma” situation and betrayed each other, usually the ones with current jobs being played off against the former employees either working for DC or out of the business altogether. That kind of claim intensified once movies began to make a lot of corporate dollars. Though Stan Lee had himself complained many times that he did not own the characters he had created, or, as he grudgingly sometimes admitted, co-created for Marvel, as I write this his Stan Lee Media is trying to sue Disney for $5.5 billion dollars for recent use of “his” creations in Marvel movies and merchandising.
Indifference towards creators, to the point of cruelty, is shown to be a hallmark of Marvel Comics in this book; examples abound. But, it was a feature of the industry as a whole. By the mid-’60s, Jerry Siegal, co-creator of Superman for DC, worked as a proofreader in the corner of the Marvel offices, a man who otherwise would have been out of a job except that Stan Lee could show a soft spot when times were good. Marvel was selling 35 million comic books per year at that point. By 1967, it was selling 6 million per month, only a million behind DC, despite having only a fraction of the titles on the racks DC had. But, even a proofreader rated higher than a secretary; ace Marvel representative Flo Steinberg who did Stan’s secretarial work and expertly handled all the huge load of fan mail, quit in June of 1968 because she had never had a raise in five years, the idea on the Goodmans’ part being that a secretary was easily replaced.
In June, 1968, Martin Ackerman of Perfect Film & Chemical Corporation, a corporate raider which had recently acquired Curtis Publishing for the sake of getting Curtis Circulation, its distributing arm, made a bid to acquire Marvel Comics. Ackerman’s interest in acquiring Marvel was for the sake of having something more for Curtis Circulation to distribute. This freed Marvel from the limitation of publishing only eight titles per month. Goodman sold the company for $15 Mil. in cash and some Perfect Film bonds, a deal Ackerman stipulated had to include Stan Lee, who got a raise and a five-year contract; Goodman also insisted on a contract for himself to continue as publisher and for his son, Chip, to come on board as Editorial Director. But Goodman was aghast at the thought of sharing points in the sale to those who had built his company into a big winner. The sale went through, and Perfect Film renamed itself “Cadence.”
Chip sold the film and merchandising rights to Marvel’s properties to promoter Steve Lemberg for a mere $2,500, with a contract which he could renew indefinitely with full, exclusive creative control of all characters. Marvel had made similar deals twice before, with Robert Lawrence (“Marvel Super Heroes” animated series) and Don Wallace (who ran promotional company “Marvelmania”). Marvelmania got the merchandising rights for $10,000, advertised in the back of the comics and sold posters, buttons, stickers, stationery, and art portfolios, a majority drawn by Jack Kirby, who was paid nothing for the newest exploitations of his hard work. Kirby’s new original art was used by Wallace to pay staff. Mark Evanier, a Marvelmania staffer, repossessed as many of these as he could and returned them to Kirby. Jack Kirby’s contract ran out and the company, having taken pains to hire plenty of artists in the meantime, did not want to give him a new one. They offered him a loan, instead, at 6% interest.
Kirby moved to California in 1969 and began talking with Carmine Infantino about a three-year contract with DC. The raw deal he was getting with Marvel chafed. He couldn’t get his original art back, the handshake deals for a piece of merchandising pie Goodman had promised him had never materialized and was now denied, and the new owners didn’t even recognize his contributions to Marvel’s success at all. He was the man whose work built Marvel, rescuing the company in deadline pinches dozens of times and creating the cosmic worlds and dynamic house art style that set Marvel miles apart from all other publishers, and they didn’t know he existed. It was all “Stan Lee” to them. He publicly complained that comics were a form of journalism, but the publishers were restricting them to soap operatics. With no contract and nothing worth having forthcoming, Kirby went to DC with a three-year contract and wide creative latitude guaranteed.
Comics prices had gone from 10¢ to 12 ¢ in 1962, in 1969, they jumped 25%, to 15¢. Now, they’re $2.99 with ads, $3.99 without.
Marvel’s passing inclusions of college protestors and so forth in a few of its stories backfired on it when evenly-divided fans over the Vietnam War demanded Marvel take a stand. In the end, after not knowing which way to jump, Marvel decided to look hip by bringing in non-super-powered heroes, The Black Panther and The Falcon (derided as “Sidney Potier in supergarb”) and some passing villains (“The Man-Ape!”) and supporting players.
The so-called “House of Ideas” had, by its actions, made it clear that generating new ideas was not going to do anything for those whose “Eureka” moments actually generated them. The bloom was off the rose, and now Marvel’s corporate actions discouraged creative innovation. Stan Lee publicly said he didn’t understand people who read comics, and that he wouldn’t read them himself, if he weren’t in the business. He wanted to be Rod McKuen.
Stan had groomed a capable replacement writer-editor, Roy Thomas, and gradually gave him the reins, then moved to California, to devote most of the rest of his lifetime to generating hype and very little to do with keeping up with Marvel Comics’ doings in comic books.
Thomas, tasked with coming up with new characters, recycled old ones, instead, so as to avoid the inevitable resentment he knew he’d feel if he created new characters for Marvel to freely exploit in residual uses without paying him. He created The Vision, therefore, from the body of the Human Torch and the “mental patterns” of Wonder Man, two deceased Marvel characters. And he created Yellowjacket as a new identity for Henry Pyn, a.k.a., Ant-Man, Giant-Man, and Goliath. His idea of new villains was to reincarnate thinly-disguised versions of the super-hero team from rival DC Comics which had instigated the creation of The Fantastic Four.
Just as Curtis Circulation took over and gave Marvel free rein to publish as many titles as they wished, the comic-book market ceased expanding. Figuring out how to counter that problem became a preoccupation for the industry ever after, particularly once myriad forms of electronic entertainment and diversion proliferated from the mid-1970s onward.
Given flat sales, at that point, Martin Goodman resumed managing the course. Dr. Strange and Captain Marvel were canceled. Reprint comics were put into production: Ringo Kid, Homer the Happy Ghost, Peter the Little Pest. A page was cut from the continuing series, so half-page ads started running in the comics. In effect, this was a five percent pay cut for the freelancers.
Goodman also meddled with editorial content. He banned classic science-fiction staples such as rockets, ray guns, and robots. He ordered single-issue stories, no more continuing sagas. No more cliffhangers or cosmic sagas.
Stan Lee had already been saying to his writers and artists for a year or two that Marvel Comics should offer only “the illusion of change.” Now, even that illusion would be difficult to produce.
It looked like a good time to get out to Sol Brodsky, production manager, as well, who also left that year for a start-up black-and-white comics company, Skywald Publications. Brodsky was only gone a few months, but Marvel had, up to that point, managed to chase off Steve Ditko, Wally Wood, Flo Steinberg, Jack Kirby, Stan Goldberg the color master, and John Severin. They would go on to alienate many other creators over the coming decades. Goodman was half-out the door. Perfect Film changed its name to the meaningless moniker, Cadence Industries, and moved to New Jersey. And, though Marvel was now publishing about 40 titles per month, sales of comic books were down.
Stan Lee and Chip Goodman had tried, unsuccessfully, to get the Comics Code authority to lighten up and allow them to depict drug abuse as a problem. It was voted down by the board. But when the US Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare asked Marvel to depict the problem, it published a couple of issues of Spider-Man which depicted Peter Parker’s roommater as a pill-popping addict. These did not carry the Comics Code Authority mark of approval, but were distributed as normal. Marvel made a publicity sensation of this event. The Code relented on depictions of drug abuse as a problem, and loosened their restrictions on horror, so vampires, werewolves, witches, and swamp creatures began to appear in comics of that era.
Meanwhile, Stan Lee, on the lecture circuit, was publicly telling speaking audiences that the comic book industry was the worst industry for the creative person on the face of the earth. Like Jack Kirby, and despite his enormously more lucrative position, he felt cheated not to own any of his creations. He was also depressed with the cancellation of The SIlver Surfer, a Kirby creation from the Fantastic Four he had launched in a double-sized book for himself to write.
Marvel’s new titles were “low-cost, genre-dabbling” books: Western Gunfighters, Lil’ Kids, Our Love Story, Spoof, Harvey, and Fear. Roy Thomas’s “The Kree-Skrull War” multi-issue story arc in The Avengers was the most exciting comic story of the year.
At this point, the devious Martin Goodman pulled off a scheme calculated to destroy DC Comics in the marketplace. He got DC to agree to a gentleman’s deal expanding books from 36 pages (including covers) to 52 pages, and to charge 25¢. Both companies did so, for one month, after which Marvel cut back their page count again and started charging 20¢. He offered newsstand proprietors a bigger cut of the profits in a bid to crowd DC from the racks. DC tried to tough it out, but ended up with the same format and pricing as Marvel, meanwhile having lost the war (and damaged Jack Kirby’s career, as the price hikes contributed to lower sales for the period of his “Fourth World” work for the company; the books were cancelled without reaching resolution). At the very time Marvel Comics had all but extinguished the creativity of its creative contributors, it became the largest comic book company in the world, which it remained from then on, being outsold by DC only in a rare month here and there as succeeding decades passed.
To keep Stan Lee happy, so he wouldn’t jump ship and go to DC, Sheldon Feinberg promoted him to President and Publisher, doubling his salary.
Stan Lee made a deal with underground comix publisher Denis Kitchen to go “underground” in a relatively tamed manner (compared to, say, ZAP! Comix) and bailed out on the deal after three issues came out. Sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll! “Why are the hippies getting special treatment?” grumbled someone on the Marvel staff. That was a refrain to be heard often in years to come, as Marvel went on to show its regulars what special deals for mavericks really could be, starting in the 1970s, but reaching periodic new heights during the 1990s and beyond.
Meanwhile, comics and magazine pros alike complained that Chip Goodman’s role in the company consisted of dropping by at random intervals and insisting on arbitrary changes to content.
And Marvel’s comic book sales were still falling. So, new black and white magazines rolled off the presses. Dracula Lives, Monsters Unleashed, Tales of the Zombie, and Vampire Tales, each with 76 pages of content per month. Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by NIght in the regular comics line gave Marvel new sinister characters closer to the superhero lineups, along with Ghost Rider. Luke Cage, Hero for Hire was the third in the “Wonder Man” super-strength-via-modern-science characters lineage, a mercenary black superhero for the Me Generation.
The untimely deaths of veterans began in 1972. Sub-Mariner creator Bill Everett, 55, and Syd Shores, 49, died of heart attacks. Stan Lee, who was to live a long life, turned 50. The average artist age at that time was 43, the average writer age now was 23.
1973 was big for new merchandising, including bubble bath, paint by numbers, Halloween costumes, walkie-talkies, calendars, rubber balloons, and bicycle horns.
Stan Lee decided he didn’t want the boardroom role of President any longer. Albert Einstein’s godson, Albert Einstein Landau, who ran a photo agency which supplied Magazine Management Corp., had been socializing with Chip Goodman, who introduced him to Cadence CEO Sheldon Feinberg; the two hit it off just fine. By the time Chip Goodman learned Stan Lee had stepped down as president (to be Publisher only henceforth), Feinberg had already hired Landau as his successor. Once Chip’s contract expired, Landau asked him if wanted to resign, or be fired. It was the end of the Goodmans’ association with Marvel Comics and Magazine Management Corp, and, for Stan Lee, his entree as publisher for the magazines of Magazine Management. One of his moves was to start a People knock-off called Celebrity, which featured himself hob-nobbing with people in Hollywood.
Marvel, having introduced some black comics characters, now tried to get hip with women’s lib, in the most inept possible way, by launching three female-written comics Stan dreamed up in one day, male wet-dream stereotypes titled Night Nurse, The Claws of the Cat, and Shanna the She-Devil. Next, came finding some females willing to write the stuff, as the whole Marvel writing staff was male. Roy Thomas’s wife, Jeanie, Herb Trimpe’s wife, Linda, and Carol, the wife of a conventioneer named Phile Seuling, were hired to write these dubious ventures. Marie Severin drew The Cat, only to have inker Wally Wood render the figure naked, forcing Marie to white-out nipples and pubic hair. Shanna the She-Devil was given to professional eccentric writer Steve Gerber, once Carol Seuling quit after the first few months. Gerber steered Shanna into introspective internal monologues questioning the meaning of her existence. Jean Thomas told Roy she was leaving not only the comics world, but him, too. All of these comics were cancelled within, ironically, nine months of launch.
Marvel returned to emphasizing black characters, including the first Marvel use of Marvin Wolfman’s “Blade” character he’d invented years before. The one comic that went “all-black,” however, was written by staff proofreader Don McGregor, Jungle Action, featuring T’Challa, the Black Panther’s adventures within his own African kingdom. (The character re-christened himself “The Black Leopard” for a while, so as to distance himself from The Black Panther political movement.) Since Steve Gerber was also a proofreader, and both were taking controversial approaches they firmly believed in, they cut a deal not to meddle with each other’s books, and got away with carrying out their own visions for a while. Their ranks in this job type (and agreement) grew with the additions of Tony Isabella, Doug Moench, and David Anthony Kraft. Roy Thomas kept a loose, creative attitude in the offices and presided over Marvel’s most subversive creative era. Freelancers like Jim Starlin and the military veteran Steve Englehart had strong, angry convictions about society, which they expressed in their stories.
Roy Thomas and writer Gerry Conway decided to shake things up by killing a Spider-Man supporting player. Bypassing the chance to finally, for real, kill Aunt May, they opted to kill Peter Parker’s girl friend, Gwen Stacey. They decided that she was too perfect to relate to a “broken person” with perennial problems like Peter Parker. They ran it by Stan Lee, who obliviously tossed off an approval. So the Green Goblin kidnapped Gwen, threw her from the top of the George Washington Bridge, and Spidey webbed a net beneath her. A sound effect, “Snap!” accompanied her landing in the net. Ooops. Gwen died of a broken neck from the whiplash of being caught in Spider-Man’s net.
The fans went ballistic and yelled at Stan Lee when he next appeared on a college campus. “Oh, they must have done that while I was out of town,” he mewed. Stan threw Conway to the wolves; he couldn’t go to comics conventions any more. Len Wein killed a supporting character in The Hulk, too. So, Stan started assuring his audiences that he had instructed Marvel’s staff not to kill too many characters, and that GWEN STACEY WOULD BE BACK.
Then, to cash in on an offer from Azrak-Hamway, Stan Lee instructed Conway to come up with “The Spider-Mobile” in a story. Conway was aghast. Spider-Man, who swings rapidly through the city on web lines, is to start driving a car and getting stuck in New York City traffic? He made it a publicity stunt in the actual comic and put Marvels’ address on the business card handed Spider-Man by the sleazy suits who resembled Stan Lee and Roy Thomas. Conway soon went on to develop The Punisher, a crime fighter who shoots the bad guys dead. His villains became exploiters of their fellow-men, rebels who cut secret deals with Fascists or government functionaries who became arms dealers.
The pressure to merchandise the comics properties was only getting started.
Jim Starlin and Steve Englehart, chemically-enhanced co-conspirators of sorts, each came up with a story wherein some hero’s adversary character transformed himself into all-powerful “God,” one by use of the Cosmic Cube, the other by backward time-travel, absorbing the power of all history’s magicians. Stan Lee made this one of his random discoveries of what Marvel Comics was publishing, and ordered Roy Thomas to get a retraction from the authors because they couldn’t claim these villains had become THE God. The writers said that would wipe out their whole point. Englehart then concocted a phoney letter of praise from “Rev. Billingsley in Texas” and mailed it from Dallas, where Englehart had a Christmas flight layover, so it would have the appropriate postmark. It reached Jim Starlin, who was reading Dr. Strange fan mail and actually thought it was the real thing. He gave it to Thomas and Thomas showed it to Lee. Thomas got back to them and said, “Forget the retraction. Look at this letter. We’re running this on the letters page, instead.”
Gutless wonder Stan Lee had Roy Thomas probe his master’s positions for him. He encouraged Thomas to push for policies like returning original art to freelancers. Landau would look at him like an idiot when he’d make suggestions like recruiting Phillipine artists to hedge against a threatened industry-wide strike. “It’d be too much like a vacation,” said Landau, although a civil war was raging in that country. “We could sell comics directly to retailers at a discount.” Whenever Stan, the publisher, put Thomas up to one of these proposals, he’d leave him hanging out to dry and comment to others, “Roy and I don’t see eye to eye these days.”
Roy Thomas was wonderful at handling the creative people at Marvel, but when Stan Lee tried to get Carmine Infantino to engage in some de facto rate fixing for freelancers, Thomas, who was sick of all the politics and chronic, all-hours overwork anyway, resigned.
Lee enticed Thomas, who had an offer from DC to write Superman, into staying as a writer by working out the WWII-era The Invaders concept, and writing Conan the Barbarian. Thomas persuaded Len Wein to take over the color comics and Marvin Wolfman the black-and-whites. Chris Claremont got to take over the new X-Men series. At the instigation of Al Landau, Thomas, Mike Friedrich, and artist Dave Cockrum brainstorned a new team of multi-ethnic heroes which were to become one of the most popular hits Marvel ever had — the X-Men, revived after an earlier cancellation.
Gerry Conway felt betrayed by the changes. Stan Lee had promised him the editor position if Roy ever left. Now he was stuck with fulfilling Stan Lee’s mandate to bring back Gwen Stacy. Stacey came back into Peter’s life to traumatize him and Mary Jane Watson. She turned out, during the six-part story, to be a clone created by one of their old college professors who was jealous of their relationship — who had cloned Peter Parker, too. Gwen, the clone, who somehow shared the memory of her natural-born self, said a sad farewell in the end, and set off, into the sunset. He began writing for Atlas during its window of opportunity and for DC. Then, he got tapped by Albert Landau to write the historic first Marvel/ DC crossover, the over-sized Superman vs. Spider-Man of 1975.
When Editor Len Wein asked Al Landau why artist Ross Andru had been pulled from their number one title to draw that book without consulting him, Landau said, “Because it’s none of your fucking business.” This prompted Wein to physically hurl himself on Landau, while Stan Lee and Marvin Wolfman tried to intercede and prevent an all-out brawl. Wein admitted he hated his duties and quit. Wolfman took over and Archie Goodwin was assigned the job of overseeing the black-and-white titles. Wein was allowed to take some books and be his own editor of just those. He got Thor, which Conway had quit when he was refused that same deal.
A lot of deadlines were being missed in this era. Giant John Verpoorten, Sol Brodsky’s successor as production manager, did not report to work Monday, Dec. 19, 1977, after leaving sick Friday, entered his apartment with his building superintendent to find him dead at age thirty-seven, in his apartment. McPherran knew of his stressful practice of pre-vouchering checks to struggling artists for assignments yet to be turned in. She attributed his death to the stress from this secretive, kind-hearted deed while having to pretend to be the “monster” production coordinator who was tasked with keeping everything running on schedule.
Several people, in fact, were apparently killed by the stresses of trying to work for Marvel Comics either in production, art work, or distribution and sales. In reading this book, I came to feel I’d known and lost personal friends who were frustrated and overworked, dying suddenly of coronaries, aneurysms, strokes, and heart attacks, as young as in their 30s and 40s.
The culture was dysfunctional and demoralizing. Landau and Lee were constantly creating and cancelling titles. An editor could have a slate of thirty books one week and a different slate of 30 books the next, according to production worker turned artist Bill Mantlo, who added, “It seemed at that time that the key to being a successful Marvel writer was that you had worked for two companies, that made you better than all the hacks like me and Claremont and Moench who’d begun at Marvel, stayed with Marvel, and were loyal to Marvel. In fact, financially, if you quit Marvel and went to DC, you could come back to Marvel at a higher rate than somebody who stayed at Marvel. It was a sign of success to shit on the company, go somewhere else, and then come back, and Chris, Doug, and I, and maybe Tony at that point, were left cleaning up the manure, without thanks, without reward. … There was also the theory that if you were Editor, you were supposed to write… your favorite characters… when you were fifteen. That was what ‘Editor’ meant at Marvel, not that you were someone who was efficient, who was a good administrator, or who was an excellent writer in his own stead — being an editor at Marvel meant that now you should be able to write whatever the top books were considered to be, and everybody else got what was considered the dregs.” This was a set of problems which only increased over time.
Turning in work at the last minute became a way for Marvel creators to avoid editorial meddling. There wasn’t time to proofread or correct, lest the title go out late and incur fines from the printers.
Jack Kirby, washed up at DC, his main passion titles long since canceled, returned to Marvel in 1975, where the staff gave him a hero’s welcome. Jack Kirby noticed the parallels between his DC “Fourth World” characters, Mark Moonrider, Darkseid, and the Source, and Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and the Force. His contract called for no interference from New York, he was to be free to package his own comic books, based on his immense success in co-creating Marvel Comics as a force in the 1960s. So, now, he dressed up his old wine in a new bottle and came out with The Eternals. But, as with his new version of Captain America, there was no real connection with the Marvel Universe. The action all seemed to be taking place in the Kirbyverse. Stan kept trying to get Kirby to re-connect his new creations to his old ones, but Kirby ignored him, feeling insulated by his contract. His gigantic, cosmic-powered Celestials planted themselves across the world like harbingers of doom, unmolested by the Avengers or anyone else. Only the minority of younger readers who had missed Marvel’s first wave seemed to be reacting positively to Kirby’s new output. The main body of Marvel fan reaction was indifference or hostility to his isolated titles. From his standpoint, he was trying again to be recognized for his film-friendly concepts which might very well have been ripped off for Star Wars. But, the fact that The Eternals seemed to echo the rudely-cancelled The New Gods, which he did at DC until their post-price wars period of retrenchment, also made him look to fans like he had run out of ideas. He left Marvel and mainstream comics, the industry he had rescued, for good in 1978, becoming an animation company’s storyboard artist.
Martin and Chip Goodman tried, in 1974, to get their revenge for Chip’s dismissal by poaching Marvel’s talents and publishing a new imprint using their old Atlas Comics name. They tried offering higher rates than Marvel or DC and allowing creator ownership rights. Lee countered with company propaganda about rates rising, hospitalization and life insurance for exclusive freelancers, and threats that leaving for Atlas was a bridge-burner. Atlas collapsed within days in 1975, from distribution problems. Most of the comics were returned without having even been unbundled; there was no way for publishers to even determine if comics really had been delivered to the retailers. At any rate, the number of comic-book racks were beginning to dwindle as big business took over more retail outlets than ever, and ditched the funny-book racks which held lower profit margins for them than they wanted to bother with.
Albert Einstein Landau was inflating the estimated “sell-through” numbers he turned in to Cadence Industries. Suspicious, the corporation sent an accountant whom they made into Marvel CFO and a circulation consultant, Jim Galton, to examine the profit-loss statements. Cadence made Galton President of Marvel and Magazine Management while Landau was on vacation. They took Landau to lunch and explained this to him. Landau clutched his chest and fell to the floor. Galton had a year or two to salvage the company, as Cadence’s CEO, Sheldon Feinberg, was itching to shut down the publishing division altogether.
Stan Lee and Steve Gerber were working with rock group Kiss for a special comic book promotion; at one point the executives, thinking Kiss was obviously ripping off “superheroes” to derive their bizarre appearance, got the bright idea to reverse-rip them off and do a Kiss knockoff as superheroes, so as to deal out the band from proceeds. They had no clue that their goal was to trade in the band’s established celebrity to boost the Marvel brand with a new youth audience; their stupidity drove Steve Gerber to the point of despair. He informed Kiss of the scheme, and their threat of a lawsuit got the project back on track. Into the settlement, Gerber negotiated an unheard-of perk: a creator’s royalty for himself. Gerber still festered over the fact that he’d been paid $400.00 for writing runaway hit comic, Howard the Duck #1 and that even fans who had bought more than twenty copies as a collector-resale investment could make more than he did from the comic.
All of these things and more set the stage for still more tumultuous times at Marvel. As bad as some of the things I’ve touched on here in this long article might have been, the worst was yet to come. The Editor-in-Chief position was untenable, leading to a quick succession of creators in that role until the long, agonizing reign of Jim Shooter, who finally sparked a peasants-and-pitchforks revolt. You’ll have to read the book to learn how the staff of Marvel finally, literally overthrew the oppressive Mr. Shooter as chief editor. Each new set of owners had its own set of tortures, as well, to inflict upon the creative staff, from New World to Ron Perelman to Toy Biz.
Creatively, the interconnected Marvel Universe had become too bloated and complex for anyone to manage, though Marvel was trying to do it by computer by the 1990s. In the mid-90s, Spider-Man had long since married Mary Jane Watson; now, she was pregnant with his baby. One of the many editorial reversals at Marvel dictated that Spider-Man could not be allowed to become domesticated.
During the checkered 1990’s, Spider-editor Bob Budiansky was to carry out marketing master Richard Rogers’ wish to wrap up Spider-Man’s clone saga. Part of the plan was to bring back Gerry Conway’s Peter Parker clone from twenty years earlier. (When Gerry Conway had left for an editorial staff position in DC in 1975, he ran a story in Amazing Spider-Man # 149 about a cloned Peter Parker battling the real Peter Parker, leaving it ambiguous as to just which one had actually walked away from the fight.) Somehow, the clone was now supposed to be the original Peter Parker, and fans, for 20 years, had been following the adventures of his clone. Somehow, the original Peter Parker now called himself “Ben Reilly” and went into action as “The Scarlet Spider.” When his identity was revealed, Peter Parker (the clone) would disappear into the sunset with Mary Jane and their child, and the original Peter Parker, formerly known as Ben Reilly, would resume his Spider-Man role again, unencumbered by a happy, normal, human relationship as either husband or father. See, readers, you have to stick with Marvel Comics, if only to find out whether they’ve duped you for twenty years.
The Clone Saga dragged on interminably, ordered brought to a close, then, after another round of musical chairs caused by firings and defections, ordered prolonged, after all, which brought on another creative resignation.
Meanwhile, Spider-Man’s sales dropped 50%. Editor-in-chief of the time, Bob Harras, eager to scotch the domestic life of Peter Parker made all but inevitable by his marriage, tried to get the creators to blame the whole plot on the Green Goblin, who’d visibly died by impalement in 1973. His assistant was proclaiming now to disheartened writers, “We see writer-driven comics as an experiment that has failed.” Expecting mother Mary Jane ended up being told by a hospital nurse that she had had a miscarriage. Meanwhile, in a couple of panels, a suspicious-looking hospital worker was shown delivering a package on seaside docks. No one at Marvel afterward ever cared to delve into the meaning of that vignette. It’s those little things that’ll get ya. I gave up reading Marvel Comics for good by the early 1980s, but I’ve read elsewhere that Marvel even killed the likable Mary Jane character through radiation poisoning caused by her insemination. After all, as the old Saturday morning cartoon show opening jingle said of Spider-Man, “he’s got radioactive blood.” Is there, one wonders, a point faux “realism” can reach which is needlessly morbid?
The company went on to demoralize and alienate all its major creators even as it instituted new incentive plans for them. It changed ownership three more times before being acquired by Disney, along the way pioneering marketing tactics which were to prove America’s lipstick (cum comicbook) salesmen had not been profoundly impressed by the fairy-tale story about the giant who killed the goose who laid the golden eggs.
If you were ever a Marvel Comics fan, read this book. There’s much more than I can even touch on here. You’ll learn the price of commitment to Marvel Comics and the story of what happened to Chris Claremont, its most popular writer, in the tides of time and fickle editors. You’ll learn the “why behind the why” when writers and artists left titles. Why there came to be a succession of marketing gimmicks and special lines like “Heroes Reborn,” “Marvel Knights,” and “Ultimates.” You’ll learn how Stan Lee made out when he was called in to have his salary halved by Isaac Perlmutter, Toy Biz partner and de facto Marvel owner after Ron Perelman took Marvel public and bankrupted it. The stories of all the major creative players, support staff, and business executives alike, through the good times and the bad, is told in this book. I heartily recommend it.