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Marvel Comics: A History Lesson

Marvel Comics has been one of the most recognized names in comic book publishing for almost a century. One half of the “Big Two”, a moniker it shares with DC Comics, Marvel is the home of some of the most famous fictional characters of all time. But where did Marvel Comics come from? The story of Marvel is one of great accomplishments, and moments of crushing failure.

So let’s dive in, shall we?  

Martin Goodman is the Founder of Marvel Comics
Martin Goodman: The Founder of Marvel Comics

Before Marvel Comics

It is widely known that Marvel Comics is now a subsidiary of the Disney Company, but it wasn’t always. In fact, it wasn’t always known as Marvel. It all started in 1939, when a pulp magazine publisher named Martin Goodman decided to capitalize on the growing popularity of superhero comic books.

Timely Comics

Goodman established Timely Comics whose first issue, Marvel Comics #1 (October 1939), introduced the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner. Timely introduced the world to a great deal of superheroes during the Golden Age (read about that here), but none as important as the star-spangled Captain America. Cap followed Timely’s formula of super-powered Americans fighting against the Nazis, well before America was engaged in the World War II efforts.

The Cover of Marvel Comics #1
The cover of Marvel Comics #1

Atlas Comics

In the early 1950’s superhero comic books had fallen out of popularity. In 1951 Martin Goodman decided to form his own magazine distribution company called Atlas Magazines which absorbed all of Timely Comics. During this time, they cancelled all of their superhero genre titles, and instead focused on westerns, horror, war, and romance comic books.

DC Comics took a major risk in 1956 and introduced new versions of some of their superhero characters, ushering in the Silver Age of comics. In an effort to keep up, Atlas gave a young writer the chance to do the same, and Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others brought the publisher into the Silver Age with a bang (read more about that here).

Marvel Comics

Atlas Comics became Marvel Comics in the early 1960’s. Marvel and DC were the top companies for decades. Spearheaded by the determination of the great Stan Lee, Marvel became a power house of creation. Marvel brought characterization often ignored by other publishers of the time, and put a focus on telling stories about flawed, and vulnerable people who struggled to with their decisions and actions.

This was a departure for comic books, which had previously focused almost exclusively on the handsome, god-like, do-gooders like Superman. Stan Lee and his partners instead told tales of outcasts and monsters. This approach brought new generations of fans, from all demographics. The stories were no longer reserved for children, and began to attract the attention of adults, revolutionizing the industry for decades to come.

Stan Lee helped bring Marvel Comics into the Silver Age of Comics
Stan Lee helped to bring Marvel Comics into the Silver Age of Comics

The Marvel Revolution

In the 1960’s Marvel brought a new aspect to their storytelling. Allowing their heroes to disagree and fight each other, or cross-over and help each other, Marvel established a living universe for their characters to inhabit. Stan lee wrote many of these books, and the more realistic aspects of the stories attracted older readers.

The issue’s discussed in the pages of Marvel Comics’ reflected the issues the nation was facing. Spider-Man dealt with friends addicted to drugs, the Fantastic Four dealt with pollution, the X-Men represented the issues of race relations. Marvel had changed comic books forever, just by bringing the real world to the Marvel Universe.

Problems for Marvel

During the 1980’s and 90’s Marvel was bought and sold several times. In the 90’s, the comic book industry hit a major slump, mostly due to a series of questionable decisions. Marvel had been over publishing, and squeezing comic books shops, over marketing their titles in an effort to drive further demand. This strategy backfired, and Marvel declared bankruptcy. The publisher was forced to sell off the movie rights to some of their most popular characters in order to cover the cost of publishing.

The logo for Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios presents one of the most pivotal decisions Marvel has made

Back in the Black

The publisher’s profits started to climb again in the 21st century, driven primarily by toy sales and merchandising for their most popular characters. The establishment of Marvel Studios in 2007, the release of Iron Man in 2008, and the publishers purchase by Disney in 2009, marked a major change for the company. Taking inspiration from their 1960’s decision, the film studio set their films all in one living universe, allowing for their characters to interact across several films and television shows. This revolutionary decision has established the Marvel Cinematic Universe as one of the highest earning film franchises of all time.

Marvel’s Future

Marvel has gone through a lot to be where it is now, and they’ve shown no signs of slowing down. Their successful movie franchise is going strong, producing several films a year to high acclaim. Their comic book sales figures remain strong, with some of their cross over story arcs releasing to record numbers.

Marvel Comics has some of the greatest fictional characters of all time
Some of the characters of Marvel

The story of Marvel Comics is one of determination and struggles. Much like the characters in its stories, the publisher has seen great success and abject failure, but through it all it has prevailed. What’s next for Marvel?

Who knows?

But we are very excited to find out!

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