Marvel Comics (also known as “Marvel Comics Group,” “Merry Marvel,” and “The House of Ideas”), after lying comatose in its sickbed for three decades, will be euthanized later this year. The comics company is 54 years old.
Marvel Comics will be survived by the shell of its own corpse, which will continue to be trotted out from time to time by its corporate owners in a sad attempt to convince the public that it is still somehow a viable, living entity. Marvel Comics is preceded in death by its progenitors, Timely Comics and Atlas Comics.
Marvel Comics was born in 1961 in New York City to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby with the publication of The Fantastic Four #1. Its parentage grew to include Steve Ditko, Dick Ayers, Don Heck, Bill Everett, and Wally Wood (among others) as the number of its new titles increased. Among the classic characters that premiered during this time were the Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, Dr. Strange, the X-Men, the Avengers, and Daredevil. As the years went on, other notable writers/artists contributing to the line’s popularity included Jim Steranko, Roy Thomas, John Romita, Barry Windsor-Smith, Neal Adams, Gene Colan, Joe Sinnott, John Buscema, Marie Severin, Herb Trimpe, Gil Kane, and Archie Goodwin.
Marvel’s growth continued throughout the 1960s until it eventually became the best-selling and most acclaimed line of comics in North America. At this time the line expanded enormously, which allowed many new, young writers & artists to get their start in comics. While not as consistently great as it had been in the 1960s, Marvel was still far and away the industry leader, both creatively and fiscally, throughout the 1970s. Among the new, young talents that shined during this era were Steve Gerber, Jim Starlin, Steve Englehart, Sal Buscema, Don McGregor, Frank Brunner, Mike Ploog, Len Wein, Dave Cockrum, Marv Wolfman, Doug Moench, Paul Gulacy, P. Craig Russell, George Pérez, Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Jim Shooter, David Michelinie, John Romita Jr., and Bob Layton.
In the early 1980s, one of the greatest writer-artists in the history of comics, Frank Miller, emerged as an artistic force with his work on Marvel’s Daredevil. Unfortunately, this would prove to be the company’s last, great creative gasp. Marvel took to its sickbed in 1984 with the release of Secret Wars, and was then diagnosed as terminal with the release of Secret Wars II the following year. Although the line still had its moments (Walt Simonson’s early run on Thor, for example), and a few young, bright artistic talents break through (such as Bill Sienkiewicz, Paul Smith, Art Adams, and David Mazzucchelli), its best days were clearly behind it, as it became plagued with title crossovers and sales-gimmick storyline “events.” These problems worsened in the 1990s as it resorted to polybagging and multiple cover variants for its comics. At one point in 1997, Marvel was actually pronounced clinically dead but somehow, miraculously, was resuscitated. It has remained in a deep coma, barely clinging to life, ever since.
No funeral services are scheduled at this time. In lieu of flowers, please send donations to The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund at:
255 W. 36th Street, Suite 501
New York, NY 10018
Condolences can be sent to the nearest comics store and/or Marvelite available. The family would like to thank all of the writers and artists who made Marvel what it was, along with all the fans that made theirs Marvel. For all the “Friends of ol’ Marvel” who remain out there: Rest assured your no-prizes are in the mail, courtesy of your friendly neighborhood armadillo.
…Yeah, so this is only slightly tongue in cheek, folks. In case you haven’t heard, the Marvel Universe (at least as we know it) is kinda sorta coming to an end. At first I was angered by the news, but then came to realize this was a waste of emotion, as the sad truth is that this company has been pretty much creatively moribund since the mid-1980s at the very latest.
It reminded me of this conversation I had with someone about the Rolling Stones, circa the turn of the millennium. We were talking about the Stones’ amazing longevity and then, as the conversation went on, it became clear just how much of that time the Stones had been running on fumes. I mean Bridges to Babylon was an okay album, but a great one? Certainly not great by Stones standards. Steel Wheels was fun; had its moments, but you wouldn’t call that great either. Really, the last Stones album you could make a case for being great is Tattoo You, released in 1981… except this is not a proper, original studio album; it’s more of an aural collage made up of studio outtakes from the 70s. Which brings us to Some Girls, which came out in 1978. Now this is indisputably a GREAT Stones album.
The first great Stones album, of course, was Out of Our Heads, which came out in ’65. This means that the Stones’ run of greatness was thirteen years long. A good length of time, but when judged against how long the Stones have actually been playing and touring, it feels far less impressive.
The situation with Marvel is quite similar—in fact the timeframes are nearly identical. The company got its start in 1961, but didn’t really get rolling until after Spider-Man got his own title in 1963. Marvel would basically bat a thousand from this point through the end of the Silver Age. Then we get to the Bronze Age.
Now no one would argue that the quality of this era for Marvel matched the Silver Age—the consistently high quality of Lee, Kirby, Ditko, Steranko, Thomas/Adams, and Thomas/Smith was and is mind boggling—but I think the high points of the Bronze Age may have been higher than that of the Silver. It didn’t reach these highs as often, and the lows were far, far lower, but the best work of Steve Gerber and Jim Starlin rank with the best comics ever. For me, Gerber was the greatest talent of the Bronze Age. All his work is at the very least interesting and thought provoking. And of it all, his masterpiece (again, in my opinion) was Omega the Unknown, followed closely by the glorious trinity of Howard the Duck, Man-Thing, and Defenders. On the next rung I’d put his work with the Son of Satan, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the Zombie. Then there’s his work with Morbius, the Living Vampire; with Lilith, Daughter of Dracula; on Daredevil and on Marvel Two-in-One. Finally, there’s Shanna the She-Devil, the KISS Super Special, and (probably for completists only) Sub-Mariner and Crazy.
So I would say the very peak works of superhero comics in the 70s (at least at Marvel) were Starlin’s Thanos stories (set across Captain Marvel and Warlock) and Gerber’s Omega the Unknown. In addition to its sheer quality, these works were also considerably darker, more complex, and far more adult than anything that came out of the Silver Age.
We also had some groundbreaking stuff from Steve Englehart on Captain America (featuring one of the first truly politically relevant storylines in comics), Doctor Strange (with a big assist from Frank Brunner on the plotting, in addition to his amazing artwork), and Avengers (which featured a major crossover storyline with the Defenders title, the first of its kind). This was all complemented beautifully by Don McGregor’s character work with Killraven and the Black Panther in the pages of Amazing Adventures and Jungle Action, respectively. Then there was Moench’s work with Rich Buckler on Deathlok & with Paul Gulacy on Master of Kung Fu. (Moench’s run of excellence on MOKF would actually continue into the early 80s, first with Mike Zeck and then with Gene Day.) And although it wasn’t a superhero book, we have to pay homage to the Wolfman-Colan run on Tomb of Dracula, the only Marvel horror title to survive past the mid-70s. Then there’s Shooter’s brief run on Avengers with Pérez & Byrne on the Ultron/Count Nefaria/Korvac storylines. Finally, Michelinie, Romita Jr., and Layton would end the decade on a high note with their run on Iron Man.
The slide began in 1978 (coincidentally enough, the same year the Stones crested with Some Girls). First, the copyright law changed that year, which required comic companies to get their writers and artists to formally sign work-for-hire agreements in order for them (the companies, that is) to preserve legal ownership of the comics’ content. Naturally, a number of writers and artists balked at this. At Marvel, specifically, this was also the year Jim Shooter ascended to the position of editor-in-chief. In the years that followed, Shooter consolidated his power by basically forcing out (willfully or otherwise) most of the writer-editors that preceded him (specifically Roy Thomas, Marv Wolfman, and Doug Moench).
As mentioned in the obit, the last true work of greatness to come out of Marvel in the early eighties was Miller’s Daredevil run as writer-penciler (with Klaus Janson on inks/finishes) from 1980 to 1982. Now I know there’s a veritable army of fans out there who will argue that the Claremont-Byrne X-Men stuff belongs in this category too. While I enjoyed this immensely myself, I feel compelled to bump it down a slot from the “great” category due to the fact that the most dramatic arc of the Claremont-Byrne tenure, the death of Phoenix/Jean Grey, was an accident; it wasn’t their original intent to kill off the character. And letting her live in the wake of what came before would have been a grievous error, artistically. It’s one of the few times I think Shooter was right to throw some editorial weight around when he made them redo it.
Once Claremont and Byrne split, I always felt they were fairly terrible on their own. (I know there are many who remember Byrne’s Fantastic Four fondly, but I can’t agree with this sentiment. Things started off alright, but then storylines like the FF helping Doom recapture Latveria and then saving the life of Galactus were just outrageously out of character and made no sense to me at all. And don’t even get me started on the romantic pairing of Johnny and Alicia.) In hindsight, the best thing about the Claremont-Byrne collaboration would appear to be that each man reigned in the worst instincts of the other.
The only other work truly approaching greatness at this time (and once again, this is strictly my own unique opinion) was the Roger Stern/J.M. DeMatteis run on Ghost Rider with artists Bob Budiansky and Dave Simons. This work is just criminally overlooked in my eyes. Other good stuff included Doug Moench & Bill Sienkiewicz on Moon Knight; Jo Duffy & Kerry Gammill on Power Man and Iron Fist; Bruce Jones & Brent Anderson on Ka-Zar; Roger Stern & John Romita Jr. on Amazing Spider-Man; and the aforementioned Simonson work on Thor.
By the mid-80s, it was pretty much all over. Those Secret Wars series sold remarkably well but were terrible. Then the Hobgoblin storyline in Amazing Spider-Man—a potential comics masterpiece when Stern & Romita Jr. first introduced it in early ‘83—turned into an absolute mess. For the last thirty years, the only notable works to come out of Marvel (that I can recall off the top of my head) were: Shooter’s Star Brand (which had greater potential but was sadly cut short), Peter David’s Hulk (great run early, but then he stayed with the book several years longer than he probably should have), Busiek & Ross’s Marvels (very good, but derivative by its nature, of course), and Morrison’s X-Men (interesting work, though I’ll confess I disagreed with some of Morrison’s character choices). An honorable mention to the work of Mark Waid on Captain America, Fantastic Four, and Daredevil—the real problem here is that Waid’s fine work was too often sabotaged by the terrible continuity that preceded him (particularly so with Daredevil).
Over this same thirty-year span, we also got mountains of garbage that I don’t have the stomach to list. I’ve come to praise Marvel, not to bury it.
In closing, let’s all raise our glasses one last time in a toast for the greatest comics company ever: Marvel Comics, may you rest in peace. We’ll all do our best to cherish those first twenty-plus years in our hearts, while simultaneously doing our best to forget the last thirty.