How Marvel created the modern blockbuster

Bam! Pow! A new history of the iconic comics company reveals the bare-knuckled scrapping behind famed superheroes

Published October 13, 2012 10:00PM (EDT)

Thanks to the box office domination of superhero movies like "The Avengers," "Iron-Man," "Spider-Man" and "The X-Men," Marvel Entertainment has become as widely recognizable as Disney, its parent company. What you may be less familiar with, however, are Marvel’s comics.

Decades before the movies and TV shows and fast-food tie-ins, before the lunchboxes and the Halloween costumes, a tiny, understaffed and restlessly creative magazine publisher began churning out pages and pages of comic book art. Whereas comics had once been characterized by junky kids’ titles, repetitive genre pieces and stiff, wearyingly noble superhero archetypes, Marvel characters were a revelation. Marked by humor, pathos and bold artwork, they were refreshingly complicated creations.

Perhaps the most complicated creation of all, however, was Marvel itself. As Sean Howe details in his exhaustively researched and extraordinarily compelling "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story," the company behind the creative onslaught was as contradictory and capricious as any of its characters. In the “Merry Marvel Bullpen,” friendships were wrecked, careers were destroyed and hearts were routinely broken. Peter Parker’s stint at the arachnophobic Daily Bugle was, in comparison, like working at Google.

In an interview with Salon, Howe discussed his landmark account of American mythmaking -- along with his quasi-Shakespearean portrayal of Marvel as it moves from spirited upstart to ruthless corporate colossus. We also chatted about more lighthearted topics, such as Stan Lee’s prophetic powers, the noir-ish appeal of Daredevil and how the X-Men were conceived in the Apple store.

What made you interested in writing a book about Marvel? Were you a comic book reader as a kid?

I was a voracious comic book reader as a kid. It’s kind of how I learned to read. By the time I was 8 years old, I’d had my first taste of a comic book store, which was a big deal. Before the Internet comic book culture, if you lived in an isolated town, comic book culture was this secret network with dispatches every month about something that was much bigger than you. Part of that was [Stan Lee’s] bullpen bulletins. That’s one of the things specific to Marvel. While DC comics also offered the secret language of comics, it didn’t provide that sense of community. When you read what was going on in the Marvel bullpen it seemed like an extended family.

I remember it well. It was as if everyone was hanging around and writing stories, drawing art and joking around. Like a newsroom full of artists.

Yeah, it was bustling and enthusiastic and, above all, happy. And so, as I started to learn of other, darker shades of that existence, that’s when I wanted to dig in and learn more about the way things really were. Although in some cases, it was like that. In a way, I think Stan Lee almost willed that magical work place into existence. When he first started writing about the Marvel bullpen, it didn’t reflect reality. It was kind of all made up. But eventually, when all these comic book fans started working at Marvel, they made it into that. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So one of Stan Lee’s greatest Marvel creations was the culture of Marvel.

Yeah. And despite all the drama that went on there, I think a lot of people look back at it as the best place they ever worked … until it wasn’t. And they all have that story.

Early in the book, you cite Stan Lee as saying that readers want “the illusion of change.” I thought this really goes to the heart of the strength and the weakness of comics because, on the one hand, the familiarity is comforting, but on the other hand, it’s predictable and can get very stale – characters aren’t allowed to change. Even when writers and artists try to do interesting and innovative things to change these characters, after a while, everyone scrambles and changes it back. “That guy was just a clone” and “That was an alternate universe …"

It’s unique to comics. It’s [as if] on "The Wire" Omar [were to come] back a few seasons later, or [if] "Twin Peaks" spun off a show with Laura Palmer’s clone. It’s this weird collision of merchandising opportunities that you can’t blow up by changing things too much, but you’ve also got ... you know, it’s a serial, and you need to keep feeling like you’re moving forward …

And with Marvel, the characters are so interconnected, and they show up in one another's comic books all the time ... it gets really hard to follow as the plots get more and more convoluted.

Right. I don’t know how you get around it … you hit the reset button every once in a while. And that kind of fucks everything up, too.

Because the die-hard fans don’t want things they cared about to be meaningless now.

Right, right. And meanwhile, if you imagine, oh, I’m the writer on, you know, "Captain America" and somebody just did this terrible four-year stint on "Captain America" and fucked up everything that was good about the character. How do I fix that without betraying the people who loved the last four years of "Captain America"?

Also, just logistically, how do you do it when you have a character who has been alive, like Spider-man, since the '60s? And yet he’s … how old is he? Is he 18? Is he 35? Is he 22? How has he lived through the Vietnam War and the '80s and computers and cellphones, and yet he’s the same age?There’s that essential suspension of disbelief that time is passing and yet this character is not aging to the same degree.

Spider-Man is a particularly interesting example because he has actually aged more than any of them, I think. I mean, just off the top of my head: he was in high school, and then he was in college, and then he was in grad school, and then he got married, and then Mary Jane had a miscarriage, and then he got divorced, and then something happened with a demon …


… and yet I think he’s never gone back to high school or college. He’s got at least a mid-20s feel to him, at least. He’s actually transformed permanently in that sense. Another thing I find really interesting -- I think I wrote one line about it at the end of the book, but have been thinking about it a lot lately -- is that the movies are now going to become canon. They’re going to eclipse what we think about these stories. You can bet that the Black Widow and the Hawkeye versions that we grew up with are going to get kicked totally to the side.

So for the future of Marvel, do comics even matter anymore?

I would like to think so. I’m sure that for the people who work at Marvel comics there’s a lot of love for the art form there ... I don’t like the way that after spending so many years caring about the art form of comics and holding things close when no one else really cared, now these big blockbuster movies are coming out and the world at large is hip to what "Iron Man" is, or maybe even the "Cosmic Cube" …

The "Cosmic Cube"! I was shocked to see that in a movie.

(Laughs) But I think it’s a bummer that people will think to themselves that now they get what all these people were so excited about because they saw the movie and thought, “Oh, these are interesting characters.” And that reduces it so much. Not to take anything away from the characters, but so much of what we love about comic books is the art form. And I think it’s just been accepted that Marvel can be reduced to these ten characters that everybody knows now.

There’s also something fundamentally different about the medium. Reading a comic book is a personal, one-on-one experience; you don’t read a comic book next to 50 people reading the same comic book at the same time. But if you go to a movie, it’s just part of the generalized experience.

Absolutely. And of course comic book reading is different than even just prose reading because you’re lingering a lot more because of the artwork.

One of the things I found especially interesting about your book was how much business coverage is in it. And how many of the moves, these corporate moves, led to great creative moments. Some really fundamental things like, for example, when they reimagined "X-Men" in ’74 it was because Transworld Feature Syndicate wanted to repackage Marvel Comics for foreign markets. And Al Landau realized there were no Asian or European characters, or not very many of them, and that was the impetus for Storm and Nightcrawler and Colossus. And Wolverine was born out of a need to exploit the Canadian market. It sounds so callous and manipulative, and yet it resulted in Wolverine, who is one of our most memorable comic book characters.

There’s a long tradition of crassness in the industry. You could go back all the way to "Captain America." Is that just something to cash is on patriotism? That’s probably a stretch ... those were two Jewish kids who probably wanted to do something a bit more ... But there is a long tradition of basically good art coming out of these commercial concerns. And, obviously, vice versa. And I find it fascinating that it was partially conceived in that restaurant the Auto Pub, which is basically a testament to assembly lines, which is also now … that place is the Apple store on Fifth Avenue. The X-Men were conceived in the Fifth Avenue Apple store.

It’s funny you should mention Apple, because I was just thinking of Apple as a similar company to Marvel. Apple used to be depicted as a scrappy underdog up against Microsoft, and now it has the highest market cap valuation of any company in history. Marvel was always the underdog. Even though it was outselling DC after '81, it still felt like the little guy. And yet throughout the later part of your book, there are these anecdotes of bloodless corporate speak, “Comic books aren’t what we’re about. We’re about media properties and selling lunch boxes.” It’s strange to see Marvel become a Goliath from the David.

For years after they were number one, Marvel still managed to retain this underdog vibe. At least in the minds of consumers. Even in the early '80s when I was starting to really notice that there was Marvel vs. DC, it was always Marvel that was hipper and cooler and a little edgier. But in fact, they were this behemoth, and you could argue that was about the same time that DC was becoming edgier than Marvel was. "Swamp Thing" was going up against "U.S. One." Did you ever read that?

"U.S. One"? What was that? A "Captain America" spin-off?

No, it was a 12-issue series of a kid with a bandanna who drove a truck. Don’t spend too much time tracking it down.

One of the periods in comics history that I thought you rendered especially compelling was the mid-'90s, the era when, ironically, I stopped reading comics. All the different cover art, the embossed and platinum jackets — I remember Ghost Rider with his Day-Glo motorcycle — and it just got so crazy with bagged covers and holograms and trading cards that I checked out.

Yeah, the speculator market.

That was also the time of the Image defection, where a lot of the Marvel superstars like Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane founded a creator-owned comics company, and suddenly these superstar artists were making tons of money and living really wild lives -- until then there was really no example of that.

It’s by degree. There might be something in the book about John Byrne making a ton before that. The royalties, I think, were a pretty big deal for a handful of artists who had come up through the ranks and were mostly in their thirties by then. I’m sure Frank Miller had done a good percentage on "Ronin," though it probably didn’t sell a million copies.

Incidentally, "Ronin" was one of my favorite comics.

I don’t think I’ve ever read the whole thing.

It’s worth reading.

I think it’s been reprinted in some nice-looking way pretty recently, so I should check that out … Yeah, there was Miller and Byrne, and probably a couple of guys that I’m not thinking of, who were selling portfolios and making a lot of money. But it was nothing like after Image came along. Those were guys who didn’t necessarily need any kind of track record to be suddenly raking it in. The Image guys are fascinating because so many of the things that they’ve said in interviews seem so arrogant that you don’t really want to root for them as the good guys, but the fact of the matter is that they deserved to make that money. They really were the David fighting the Goliath. They really changed the industry in a permanent way. Then again, just by fucking up their shipping dates, they also had a hand in screwing up the industry in the '90s. They weren’t totally averse to doing variant covers, either.

They did seem egotistical and arrogant but, seeing how their predecessors had been mistreated, their defiance was kind of understandable. You described a lot of these creators from the '50s and '60s who were just defeated. It was awful. An old Jerry Siegel working as a proofreader -- the guy who co-created "Superman"! Or Carl Burgos, who waited 28 years for the copyright on the original "Human Torch" to come up, and then Marvel reintroduces "The Torch" and kills him.

I tried to present that very carefully. There’s some conjecture going. I’m just saying, “This happened and this happened.” I can’t say for sure that that was the reason, but it seems like a strange coincidence to me.

Correlation not causation — got it.

Just the body counts of these artists is staggering. People who didn’t really know anything about comics or were casual comics readers, who have read this book, one of the first things they say to me is, “Oh my God. So many of these people died so young.”

Marvel reminds me of the comic world version of "Death of a Salesman." It’s full of so many awful moments of disloyalty. The company just uses you up. Not to cast aspersions on Marvel — it’s work for hire. There are no surprises. But it’s tough. It’s a corporation. It acts like a corporation.

The book really clarified for me just what corporate loyalty means -- the price of corporate loyalty. I can understand how people confuse Marvel the tradition and Marvel the brand with Marvel the company. Despite what some people say, corporations are not people. And they’re not in and of themselves good or evil. They are just going to act the way that the people who control them act. I don’t know who called what shots at Marvel. It’s funny how fluid the benevolence can be.

When Chris Claremont, after 16 years on "X-Men," got kicked off the title, I thought, “Well, we’ve seen this before.” Someone puts their heart and soul into a title, works it and develops it — often creates it — and then one day they’re unceremoniously dismissed. It was hard to read about. Every decade, a new generation would come in, and a new editor in chief would have different ideas. And it felt very real to me, because no one was a villain. No one said, “I love power, and I’m going to destroy things.” Even the era of Jim Shooter, which seemed to me an especially high time of editorial-creative tensions, even he didn’t come across as a bad guy. There’s just all this strain. It’s the reality of navigating a company.

I’m very glad that that’s how you felt because that’s exactly what I was hoping I was conveying. Outside of the guys who were just total money guys who had no interest in comic books, I think a lot of the mistakes that were made at Marvel were honest, human mistakes. There are so many people who have the best of intentions and things didn’t always turn out great. The cycle mirrors the endless narrative of Marvel comics. It mirrored the narrative of a character in a way. You keep seeing these same things happening over and over. There is this repeating cycle of people getting their dreams crushed. And then it resets again. There were times when I was thinking, “Am I going to wear out the reader with this going on and on?” But how do you not tell that?

Just like the comics, there’s just enough innovation and change in each era that even though you’ve seen the story before, it does stay fresh every time. Whether it’s Steve Engelhart and Jim Starlin, or Jim Shooter and Chris Claremont, or later on with the Image founders, there’s always something that makes it seem brand new even though there is this fundamental mythology going on once again. 

It’s a narrative fugue or something.

Okay, two final questions. First, what is your favorite Marvel superhero?

That brings up the earlier issue of the differentiation between the characters and the art form …

You mean the characters are so different depending on who is writing or drawing them? Or — 

They have these essential qualities, but they are also, to a degree, blank canvases. I went through a Wolverine phase -- I was ahead of the curve on Wolverine -- he was an early favorite. But what stayed with me the most from when I was first reading the comics was Frank Miller’s work on "Daredevil." If I was to say, “Why do I like Daredevil?” it’s not necessarily because I love the idea of this blind lawyer or somebody with heightened senses. It’s because I love the noir atmosphere of that comic book. It’s so much more than somebody’s secret identity or their powers. So, Daredevil is your answer.

OK, now who is the worst Marvel superhero? You’re clearly the person to ask since you threw me with that "U.S. One" guy.

Hmm. Well … let me say something with the qualification that it was a little after my time, and I didn’t actually read a lot of these but … I feel like the character of Bishop can take some heat from me. That was definitely a “We need a black character” marketing initiative. His fashion sense was terrible. It was in the era of big guns, which I find problematic — I don’t think it’s coincidence that that era lines up with the [beginning of the] steroid era of baseball. And so, based on totally subjective, uninformed, negative feelings for the day, I’m going to throw out Bishop.

And the corollary of that is that Gambit is the prototype for Edward from "Twilight."

That’s an interesting point. I have managed to never read or watch a "Twilight" product, but I have a sense ... Is it his relationship with Rogue?

Yeah, it’s this unrequited thing ... they can’t touch because if she touches him, she’ll absorb his memories, powers, life etc. On top of that he’s kind of brooding and sourly handsome. I found that kind of annoying. 

I was just talking with a friend about how Gambit was a real shooting star. Ten years ago, maybe 15 years ago, if you were to say, “What are the big characters Marvel has come up with in the '80s and '90s?” you’d go, “Well, Gambit is a pretty important character.” He’s really the biggest disappearing act of the '90s that I can think of. He was pretty huge for a time. I guess Cable was, too. Cable seems to have a bit more staying power. But Gambit was on TV.

By Panio Gianopoulos

Panio Gianopoulos is the author of the novella "A Familiar Beast."

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Books Comic Books Comics Marvel Comics Sean Howe Spider-man Stan Lee X-men