Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Marvel Comics

US publisher of Comic books, founded 1939 as Timely Comics by Martin Goodman (1910-1992). In the 1950s it adopted the name of its distribution company, becoming Atlas Comics; in 1963 it took a new name that honoured its first publication, decades earlier – Marvel Comics #1, November 1939. That publication had introduced The Human Torch, an android who could turn himself into a figure of fire, and Prince Namor, the Sub Mariner, a bellicose undersea monarch. The abiding popularity of these two, plus the masked superpatriot Captain America (introduced in Captain America Comics #1, March 1941), had proved a major factor in the company's consistent success. Another was the considerable communication and PR skills of editor and mainstay writer Stan Lee, who referred to his creative team as "The Bullpen".

During the 1950s most of the company's output consisted of fairly unremarkable anthology comic books, although the work of some artists, such as Gene Colan (1926-    ), Gray Morrow (1934-    ) and Al Williamson, generally scripted by Lee, was outstanding. In 1958 Lee began to inject more sf and Horror into the stories, and then, in 1961, in collaboration with Jack Kirby (1917-    ), revitalized the Superhero genre with the creation of The Fantastic Four (in Fantastic Four #1, November 1961), a group of superheroes constantly beset by personal problems while they fought various criminals. This notion of the superhero with relationship difficulties was further exploited in Spider-Man (introduced in Amazing Fantasy #15, August 1962), The Hulk (introduced in The Incredible Hulk #1, May 1962), The Mighty Thor (introduced in Journey into Mystery #83, August 1962), The Avengers (introduced in The Avengers #1, September 1963), The X-Men (introduced in X-Men #1, November 1963) and Daredevil (introduced in Daredevil #1, April 1964). Lee used his entrepreneurial skills to clarion his revamped comics line, headlining "The Dawn of the Marvel Age" and crediting the creative team with alliterative epithets ("Smiling" Stan Lee, Jack "King" Kirby, etc.). Regular readers ("True Believers") were awarded a "No Prize" for spotting errors; he created a readers' club called the "Merry Marching Marvel Society" with its own fanzine, Foom (Friends of Ol' Marvel). In so doing he established a unique rapport with his readers and took MC to the top of the sales charts. Another Lee/Kirby innovation was the "Marvel Universe", a consistent scenario in which their superheroes could encounter one another in crossover stories and team-ups (> Superhero Teams).

Recent writers have tended to credit Kirby as the sole creative genius during this period, with Lee merely acting as front man: the view has some credibility but, at the very least, Lee embellished these ideas with tremendous flair.

Also among their creations were The Watcher, an intergalactic storyteller, The Inhumans, a superhuman Wainscot race, and Galactus, a planet-eating god whose herald, The Silver Surfer (introduced in Fantastic Four #48 March 1966), is another durable MC character – visually and emotionally appealing, he became a kind of Christ metaphor for Lee, who used him to expound his own somewhat naive philosophies in The Silver Surfer (#1-#18 1968-1970).

In October 1970 MC introduced their comics version of Robert E Howard's Sword-and-Sorcery characters Conan (in Chamber of Darkness #4, April 1970) and King Kull (in Creatures on the Loose #10, March 1970). The former met with great success in Conan the Barbarian (> Barry Windsor-Smith) and spawned many spinoff titles and characters including Red Sonja (> Frank Thorne).

The mid- to late 1970s were a low period for the company, with many fantasy and horror titles – e.g., Amazing Adventures (#1-#39 1970-1976), Astonishing Tales (#1-#36 1970-1976) – being cancelled, but in 1979 a new boost came with the introduction of Frank Miller to the creative team, with Daredevil #158. He brought a new maturity to the storylines and narrative technique, thus extending the age-range of MC's readers. Other factors were attracting more mature readers to US comic books at this time, notably the rise of small, more creator-oriented publishers. MC responded to this challenge by introducing a De Luxe format, with slick paper, in some titles and the creation of the Epic line of quality fantasy. The high production quality was extended to MC's reprint titles in 1983 with their Special Editions, the precursors of what are now termed Trade Paperbacks (reprinted collections more durably bound and often billed as Graphic Novels). Further team ups and spinoffs from MC's established lines proliferated, particularly associated with the X Men, but some new titles and character ideas, like The Dazzler (#1 1981), attained high sales. Talented artists like Walt Simonson (1946-    ) and Todd McFarlane (1961-    ) were able to breathe new life into old characters like Thor and The Hulk. A New Universe series introduced concepts unassociated with MC's traditional superheroes, but was not, for the most part, a success.

The 1990s saw "gimmick" covers with metallic finishes or bearing a hologram, some books being available inside a choice of covers, with "completist" collectors encouraged to buy every variant. In 1992 MC launched 2099 Universe to link new innovations concerning characters like Doom, Spiderman, Punisher and Ravage.

MC remained a lively and innovative force in US comics publishing, with a market share often allegedly in excess of 60%, until it was acquired by an asset-stripper in 1994 and floated on the stock market. The number of monthly titles was slashed, and a consequent fall in quality created enormous resentment among both readers and suppliers. Profits fell: many of MC's creative staff were dismissed and leading Marvel characters and titles were subcontracted to rival companies. [RT]

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This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.