The Superhero Factory: An Unauthorized Corporate History of Marvel Comics

May 8, 2013 | 5 11 min read

covercoverAt some point, at 4, at 8 or 25, every child learns he will not become a superhero. It won’t be his first disillusionment. He will meet men and women who won’t return his affections. He will discover he has only a limited talent for the vocation he honors. He’ll still indulge his initial fantasies from time to time, usually through stories that imbue the superhero mythos with a hint of realism, some concept of what a superhero would look and act like if he inhabited our world. In the ’60s Marvel Comics comforted its readers by creating superheroes as neurotic as themselves. Ben Grimm was a powerful but impotent rock-man who could only be sated by the love of a blind woman. Reed Richards had no curiosity for the sexual possibilities of his body, which could stretch in any and all directions. By the ’80s, the concept of superhero-comic realism led to the ultra-violence of DC’s Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. But in the ’60s Marvel Comics avoided anything like Alan Moore’s misanthropy and Frank Miller’s fascism. The Marvel Universe was at once familiar and psychedelic, mature and juvenile, populated by likable good-looking freaks. It was a happy place.

coverMarvel’s readers had an intimate relationship with this universe’s architects, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and the rest of the Marvel “Bullpen.” You could always feel the hand of Kirby in his funky Skrull soldiers or in the geometric oddities he placed in outer space. You could sense Ditko’s hand in Peter Parker’s slouch or Spider-Man’s wiry frame. Stan Lee, knowing full well that stories are more interesting if you think you know the storyteller, capitalized on this quality. In his monthly column, he cultivated his image as the guy at Thanksgiving who could move comfortably between the kids’ and adults’ tables, telling the same bad jokes to everyone. Though vaguely liberal he avoided political debate. He could be wry. When in the tenth issue of The Fantastic Four Dr. Doom returns to Manhattan to face off against his arch-nemeses, he first stops by Marvel’s offices to menace Lee and Kirby. This is all another way of saying that Stan Lee made sure you knew as much about himself and his colleagues as he needed you to know, and no more than that.

coverIn real life, in our universe, the mythmakers did not always maintain the good humor that pervaded their comics. As Sean Howe writes in his engrossing work of reportage, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, they “carted their own proprietary feelings about the characters and stories, and their own emotional and financial entanglements, which made passing through the company’s constantly revolving doors an arduous and sometimes painful process.” Howe’s book covers the entire history of Marvel, from 1939 to Disney’s acquisition of the company 70 years later. It’s an entertaining book, filled with some primo gossip, and unlike previous histories of Marvel, completely unauthorized. The book has few heroes and villains, only figures who, with varying degrees of success and failure, negotiate the politics of a large enterprise for their own wants and needs. It’s a portrait of what capitalism can create and what it can’t create — and what it can destroy.

covercoverThis is the golden age for histories of the comic-book medium, whether they be smart journalism or pop-culture anthropology. David Hadju’s The Ten Cent Plague recounted the industry’s fight against censorship in the 1950s. Craig Yoe’s Secret Identity collected the erotica Superman co-creator Joe Shuster produced for the underground pornography industry after he was exiled from DC Comics. These books are titillating. We all know that comics are not just for kids, but they still appeal to how we remember our first tremor of sexual excitement during our pre-pubescence. There was always something forbidden in between the panels of comics. Hadju, Yoe, and now Howe’s accounts remind us of what we already knew, that the guy who wrote, drew, or edited your favorite stories was capable of saying “fuck.”

covercoverMarvel’s comics, like those of most of the industry, were never wholesome. In 1939, Martin Goodman, who ran with his brothers a publishing enterprise called Timely released Marvel Comics #1, an 80-page compendium of stories modeled on DC’s Action Comics. It featured Carl Burgos’s Human Torch and, more notably, Bill Everett’s Sub-Mariner, the prince of a lost city of Atlantis, a classical figure with exotic eyes who hated every lesser mortal who crossed his path. The issue sold 800,000 copies and Goodman ordered his workers to develop more superheroes. In March 1941, on the cover of Captain America #1, a hero wrapped in the American flag punched out Adolf Hitler. The children and teenagers of the ’30s and ’40s had their own Mortal Kombat fantasies and Marvel Comics realized them with exquisite detail.

There was almost never a time in the company’s history when its talent felt properly compensated for their work. Captain America was the child of Jack Kirby and the writer Joe Simon. After they were cut out of the profits the new hero was earning the company, they began moonlighting for DC, Timely’s chief competitor. When they were promptly fired for treason, Kirby was convinced Stan Lee, Goodman’s wife’s cousin, a teenager who had pushed his way into Timely to work as an office boy, proofreader, and then part-time writer, had ratted them out. Whether it was true or not, Lee was a canny little guy and Goodman gave him a big promotion. By great good luck an 18-year-old had achieved the fantasy of every 10-year-old. Lee was the editor of a comic book company. The story is repeated throughout Howe’s history. Lee, a talented man but no prodigy, is management’s favorite son. Kirby, a master of his craft, is the less loved older brother.

After Lee got back from military service in 1945, the company began a long decline. Kirby and Simon spent these years making war, horror, western, and romance comics for various publishers. The two split in the mid-’50s, and a few years later in 1958 Lee, well aware of Kirby’s reputation in the industry as a hit-maker, offered him some work. Their relationship was always more of a partnership born of necessity than a friendship.

coverAnd then in 1961, Lee and Kirby produced the first issue of The Fantastic Four. The cover, Howe writes, “was nothing like the other superhero titles on the rack. There were no colorful costumes; the protagonists appeared small and helpless; a white background lent the whole scenario an unfinished look.” There’s no way to know when a new genre is created. It gets reformed and reworked based on past conventions.  Howe notes that the first issue of Fantastic Four, while it did not resemble any superhero comics, did resemble the horror comics Lee produced with Kirby and Steve Ditko. A fear of the uncanny and of what it can do to the human body would inform a new line of heroes, the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and Spider-Man. These heroes were as self-loathing as they were self-confident and it’s tempting to imagine these artists hunched over their boards informing their heroes with their own bitterness and insecurities.

By the end of 1962, Timely’s comics division was renamed Marvel.

coverIn the ’50s, Lee had developed a system to streamline the production of Timely’s comics, which came to be known as the Marvel Method. The late Les Daniels described it in his 1991 book Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics. A writer would provide the barest of outlines for a plot. The artist would sketch the panels, developing the story’s flow through basic composition. The writer would then insert dialogue. “Born of expediency as much as inspiration it enabled artists to achieve their full potential by emphasizing the visual elements that are at the heart of the medium’s appeal,” Daniels writes. The method encouraged the artist to think in narrative and the writer to think in pictures. Daniels quoted Lee accordingly, “I’d look at Jack [Kirby]’s pictures and the words just came into my mind because the expressions and poses of the characters were so dramatic. I would tailor the writing to the art.” Many artists just couldn’t handle the Marvel Method, according to Lee, and had to leave the company.

Howe writes that the method offered an “effective conduit for creative synergy,” but offers a different perspective on the artists’ issues. Wally Wood, the famed EC Comics horror artist who came to work at Marvel, complained that the method forced him to work above his pay grade, as both artist and writer. On the surface the method looked like a means of fostering intimate collaborations, but the paper-pushing in the office made it strikingly easy, particularly in the case of Ditko and Lee, for the artist and writer not to talk to one another. Ditko considered himself under-compensated and thanks to the Marvel Method he snuck his own words into an issue of Amazing Spider-Man. Peter Parker, in Ditko’s hands, demanded of his editor J. Jonah Jameson “equal value trade,” a term lifted from Ayn Rand.

Kirby was more responsible than anyone for building the Marvel Universe, but he needed to collaborate with Lee or really any other writer, even via this impersonal system, to do his best work. He left the company in 1970, when it became obvious he would never get the money he deserved. He went solo at DC where he proved, as usual, a grand artist, but also an incompetent writer, incapable of even the most basic syntax. Until his death, he found himself struggling to extract some royalties from his work. He eventually earned an unsatisfying settlement and in interviews he grew increasingly shrill, claiming towards the end of his life that he was solely responsible for Marvel’s pantheon. Everything Marvel did was legal, but it’s hard to disagree too much with James Sturm, who complained in Slate last year of the company’s treatment of Kirby.  “What makes this situation especially hard to stomach is that Marvel’s media empire was built on the backs of characters whose defining trait as superheroes is the willingness to fight for what is right.”

coverHowe spends about 100 of his approximately 450 pages on this most crucial period of Marvel’s history. The rest of the book follows a similar pattern, of writers and artists who demand their rights while growing frustrated with the company’s method of production and publishers and editors who condescend to their talent. Lee runs off to California to try to adapt his comics to film, while serving as the company’s mascot in the press. When he visits comic-book conventions it becomes embarrassingly clear that he doesn’t bother following the current Marvel storylines. Goodman sells off his company in 1968, making a tidy profit, of which the creators of his heroes do not partake. A series of mergers follows. Talent comes and goes. The editors manage the ever-complex Marvel Universe while mediating between the publisher and creators. And despite the corporate machinery, eccentrics still manage to endow their work with their own idiosyncrasies. Chris Claremont’s X-Men run is marked by a fascination with cross-dressing and bondage. Steve Gerber sneaks pro-acid propaganda into a Captain Marvel story. They all leave the company eventually, looking for and sometimes finding better things.

Every pop culture institution, if it lasts long enough, indulges in some form of self-reflection. Office politics had long seeped into the storylines of Marvel Comics. But the most blatant depiction in Marvel of an artist at war with his publisher I know of appears in an issue of Brian Michael Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-Man from the early 2000s. Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. the Kingpin, maintains a criminal empire from his perch in Manhattan. He’s an enormous man, quiet, methodical, and brutal, capable of crushing the head of a subordinate with his bare hands. Fisk has discovered a non-violent way to injure our hero. Once he lures Spider-Man to his office, he shoves a Spider-Man doll in his face. Fisk has bought all rights to the young superhero’s image. “I own you,” he tells him.

By the time Bendis wrote that comic, avid Marvel fans were well aware of the company’s copyright issues which had delayed the production of film adaptations, and which had alienated its most famous artists, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. It may seem impressive that Marvel’s suits would allow Bendis’s story to be published, but it really isn’t all that brave a move. The story almost defuses the rage one feels for the company’s treatment of its talent. Most of us, despite our judgment, learn to accept corporate greed as a force that can never be fully eradicated, and some of us grow to celebrate it for perverse reasons. This is the power of irony in our corporate age. The Kingpin has charisma. He makes you almost admire the kind of bastard who would deny a worker his paycheck. In between the panels you can hear Peter Parker tell Wilson Fisk to go fuck himself.

For most of its history, Marvel Comics, practicing good business sense, tried not to alienate its readers for political reasons. In the ’60s, Captain America, who had killed thousands of long-toothed Japs in World War II, did not travel to Vietnam. Peter Parker avoided joining the Columbia University-like protests that raged at his own school. More than a decade into the AIDS epidemic, the company flinched but finally relented when one of its writers wanted a minor superhero to come out, though they balked at permitting a superhero with HIV. Like half the Democratic Party, the company would come to embrace the gay-rights movement only when it seemed absolutely safe to do so. There’s an anecdote that Howe tells early in his history that we just want to be true. About a year before Captain America punched out Hitler in 1941, one of Timely’s forgotten heroes punched out a dictator named Hiller. Why not Hitler? “Goodman, it was said, was afraid Adolf might sue.”

These political restrictions, despite their amorality, strengthened the comics. Gay readers didn’t have an out hero in the Marvel Universe until the ’90s, but they also knew that every one of the X-Men, teenage outcasts who run off to a special school where they wear tight clothes and kick ass, had a lot in common with themselves. Captain America never talked about Vietnam, but readers could imagine the pathos he could not voice when he thought about the atrocities committed in the name of the flag he wore. Save for Ditko’s weird interjections, Peter Parker’s failure to take a strong political stand only cemented his loner status. Strong myths are democratic. They allow enough space for the reader to do his own writing.

coverThe newer comics are more ballsy. Mark Millar’s take on the Avengers and X-Men, in particular, depicted a post-9/11 dystopia. Robert Morales and Kyle Baker’s Truth: Red, White and Black riffed on the story of the Tuskegee airmen and inserted the history of eugenics into Captain America’s origin story. The recent film adaptations, which must appeal to an enormous audience, are more careful. The premise of Iron Man – a reckless weapons manufacturer whose enemies either employ or are inspired by the technology he creates – could have made Jon Favreau and Shane Black’s movies more cynical. The first hour of Joe Johnston’s Captain America was a nostalgic blast, even if its depiction of World War II-America was lily-white. The gay-rights drama in Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men movies are a happy exception. Still the Marvel movies are at their best when they overcome the confines of their political moment. When Ian Mckellen’s Magneto breaks out of his plastic prison, he exudes a royal contempt for humanity. When Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man submits himself to the bosom of New York subway riders, he surrenders to his fellow man. Again, the openness of these myths allows us to identify with both hero and villain, to examine the divisions within our own selves. At these moments, the stories are Shakespearean.

coverMarc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man brought to the screen a quality that was always apparent in the comics, but which was absent in Raimi’s trilogy. Andrew Garfield’s walk, which combined a teenager’s slouch with a spider’s athleticism, created an inseparable connection between Peter Parker and his alter ego. As the teenager becomes a superhero, he becomes a craftsman, whose artistry is embedded within his body. Peter Parker/Spider-Man is physically impressive, but also an urban creature possessed of a fundamental goodness. His body merges with and improves the New York sky-scape. The cliché about Spider-Man, that he is the superhero who could be you, is wrong. Peter Parker represents what you are at your best moments, which is another way of saying that he is better than you. You can never be him, but you can identify a small part of yourself in him. The movie’s villain, Rhys Ifans’s Curt Connors is impossible to hate. He is a victim himself of a faceless corporation and he emerges from the sewers of New York, an ugly creature made of pure brawn and id. A little bit of both men lives within each of us.

This $230 million dollar product exists because Sony wanted to keep its rights to Spider-Man from reverting back to Disney/Marvel. And yet it still has something approximating a soul. In a more just world Kirby and Ditko would have been given their proper compensations long ago, and then released their characters into the public domain. It’s not fair that any corporate entity should own such a myth. No one deserves to own anyone else’s fantasy, no matter how well they tend to it.

One final note.

coverHowe returns again and again in his book to the very existence of the Marvel Universe itself, a vast web of stories and characters made up of a million crossovers. Early on, Marvel’s innovators realized that if readers felt they had to buy different titles to get a complete story, they would. That strategy reached its apex with the 50-issue Secret Wars series in the mid-’80s, a vehicle for a toy line. Many of us grew up loving this universe, with its own internal logic and physical properties, even if it grew too enormous for anyone to understand, and the editors, despite their best efforts, failed to maintain continuity. This is what capitalism can create. Thanks to bitter rivalries, smart decisions, and corporate mismanagement, the Marvel Universe has become a universe very much like our own: interminable and tedious, filled with plot holes and unexplained phenomena, and at rare moments, a crudely-drawn beauty.

recently obtained a Ph.D. in Cinema Studies from the University of Washington in Seattle. His dissertation focuses on the animation industry of the former Yugoslavia. He writes frequently on comics and animation. He can be reached via email at