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A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When Martin Goodman released Marvel Comics No. 1 — 75 years ago, in August 1939 — the New York-based pulp publisher was convinced it was a disaster. In fact, he was so horrified with the lousy print quality of the comic book — which introduced the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner, two of the only Marvel characters that haven’t been turned into tentpoles — he cut the print run short and canceled the title. Then he saw the sales figures. All 80,000 copies had flown off newsstands.
As it turns out, the early years of the comic book giant — chronicled in microbic detail in 75 Years of Marvel Comics: From the Golden Age to the Silver Screen, a 712-page Taschen volume packed with photos, bios and factoids that’s coming out in November — are filled with surprising plot twists (the later years, too: The company was sold to Disney in 2009 for $4 billion, and still prints about 80 titles a month). Like the time, in 1963, when Marvel’s printer accidentally colored the face of the company’s first major African-American character white. Or the time, in 1961, when Stan Lee (who became editor-in-chief at age 19 in 1941) informed his wife he was quitting comics. He said he didn’t see a future in superheroes.
75 Years of Marvel is an oversized wonder that measures over 11×15 inches to display great moments in comics history in all their (giant) glory like this blown up panel from Amazing Spider-Man No. 1 (1963) that sees the web slinger trying to join the FF in the hopes the job pays (it doesn’t).
MARVEL TALES NO. 6, 1939
Before trying comics, Marvel specialized in pulp magazines featuring sci-fi, mystery, fantasy and horror stories.
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MARVEL MYSTERY COMICS NO. 9, 1940
The Sub-Mariner (note the flipper wings on his ankles to help him fly) was created by Bill Everett in 1939. The character shared issue No. 1 that year with the Human Torch, written and drawn by Carl Burgos, but each had his own storyline. It wasn’t until issue No. 9, when they battled atop the George Washington Bridge, that their paths crossed, marking the first time two heroes appeared together in one story and introducing the idea of a shared universe — that the heroes all lived in the same world.
BILL EVERETT, 1939
His creation the Sub-Mariner was the first comic book antihero (he hated human “surface dwellers”). Everett continued drawing the character until his death in 1973. He also drew the first issue of Daredevil.
CAPTAIN AMERICA SERIAL, REPUBLIC PICTURES, 1944
With the 15-part serial The Purple Death, Captain America became the first Marvel hero to make the leap to the big screen. To the dismay of the character’s co-creator Joe Simon, publisher Goodman gave Republic Studios the rights for free, figuring the added exposure was payment enough. Republic traded Cap’s shield for a pistol and simplified the uniform.
MENACE COMICS NO. 11, 1954
Lee, then Marvel’s editor-in-chief, used Menace and other horror comics to openly mock anti-comic book psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who in 1954 testified before a Senate subcommittee that, among other things, Wonder Woman encouraged bondage and that Batman and Robin were gay.
TRUE SECRETS NO. 36, 1956
Although best known for its superheroes, Marvel always published lots of other genres, including humor, licensed characters (from Mighty Mouse in the 1940s to Care Bears in the 1980s), Westerns, horror and war. Romance, which was particularly popular in the ’50s and ’60s, appealed to the harder-to-reach female market.
AVENGERS PINUP, 1968
Two-page spreads were a regular feature of the special summer annuals, and this one includes an example of the way Lee created a personal rapport with fans. The lineup (from left): Hercules, Captain America, Thor, Hawkeye, Iron Man, Hulk, Scarlet Witch, Giant Man, Wasp, Black Panther and Quicksilver.
CAPTAIN AMERICA COVER, 1969
This series of images from issue No. 114 shows the progression from artist’s sketch to black-and-white page layout to the final printed version. The artist is Jim Steranko, whose late 1960s runs on Captain America and Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD are considered classics by comics cognoscenti.
WOLVERINE CONCEPT SKETCH BY JOHN ROMITA, 1974
The most important event in Marvel’s modern history was the 1975 introduction of the new X-Men, which transformed a bunch of second-tier players into the company’s most popular franchise. With his badass attitude and metal claws, Wolverine, who first appeared in The Incredible Hulk No. 180 (October 1974), was the breakout star.
SLURPEE CUP, 1975
Merchandise started appearing in the mid-’60s with T-shirts and toys. The pace picked up in the ’70s, with action figures, Saturday morning cartoons and, of course, 7-Eleven Slurpee cups, like this one with Dr. Strange.
IRON MAN NO. 122, 1979
The transition from the old sci-fi of the ’50s to the jet age of the ’60s, all in one page. The original 1963 Iron Man was as bulky as a water heater, but in this issue, fans witnessed his slick and mod makeover. Lee created Tony Stark as “a Howard Hughes type with almost unlimited wealth … but, like all mixed-up Marvel superheroes, he’d have to be flawed.” Also, unique among Marvel heroes, Iron Man has no superpowers, beyond being a snappy dresser.
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LEE PLAYING ATARI, 1982
From the beginning, Lee believed that the Marvel heroes could be popular in other media, but it wasn’t until the 1980s, with an explosion of toys, TV cartoons and video games (here, he plays Atari’s popular Spider-Man), that his ancillary dreams started to become reality.
SPIDER-MAN MOVIE POSTER, 2002
The first blockbuster movie featuring a Marvel hero was 2002’s Spider-Man, starring Tobey Maguire, which grossed $822 million worldwide. The 36 films based on Marvel characters have grossed more than $16 billion worldwide.
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