Tracing the rise of the Marvel Comics brand from the creation of the Fantastic Four to the development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this volume of original essays considers how a comic book publisher became a transmedia empire.
The creation of the Fantastic Four effectively launched the Marvel Comics brand in 1961. Within ten years, the introduction (or reintroduction) of characters such as Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, and the X-Men catapulted Marvel past its primary rival, DC Comics, for domination of the comic book market. Since the 2000s, the company’s iconic characters have leaped from page to screens with the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which includes everything from live-action film franchises of Iron Man and the Avengers to television and streaming media, including the critically acclaimed Netflix series Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Marvel, now owned by Disney, has clearly found the key to transmedia success.
Make Ours Marvel traces the rise of the Marvel brand and its transformation into a transmedia empire over the past fifty years. A dozen original essays range across topics such as how Marvel expanded the notion of an all-star team book with The Avengers, which provided a roadmap for the later films, to the company’s attempts to create lasting female characters and readerships, to its regular endeavors to reinvigorate its brand while still maintaining the stability that fans crave. Demonstrating that the secret to Marvel’s success comes from adeptly crossing media boundaries while inviting its audience to participate in creating Marvel’s narrative universe, this book shows why the company and its characters will continue to influence storytelling and transmedia empire building for the foreseeable future.
- Introduction. Excelsior! Or, Everything That Rises Must Converge, by Matt Yockey
- Chapter 1. Reforming the “Justice” System: Marvel’s Avengers and the Transformation of the All-Star Team Book, by Mark Minett and Bradley Schauer
- Chapter 2. Man Without Fear: David Mack, Daredevil, and the “Bounds of Difference” in Superhero Comics, by Henry Jenkins
- Chapter 3. “This Female Fights Back!”: A Feminist History of Marvel Comics, by Anna F. Peppard
- Chapter 4. “Share Your Universe”: Generation, Gender, and the Future of Marvel Publishing, by Derek Johnson
- Chapter 5. Breaking Brand: From NuMarvel to MarvelNOW! Marvel Comics in the Age of Media Convergence, by Deron Overpeck
- Chapter 6. Marvel and the Form of Motion Comics, by Darren Wershler and Kalervo A. Sinervo
- Chapter 7. Transmedia Storytelling in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” and the Logics of Convergence-Era Popular Seriality, by Felix Brinker
- Chapter 8. The Marvel One-Shots and Transmedia Storytelling, by Michael Graves
- Chapter 9. Spinning Webs: Constructing Authors, Genre, and Fans in the Spider-Man Film Franchise, by James N. Gilmore
- Chapter 10. Playing Peter Parker: Spider-Man and Superhero Film Performance, by Aaron Taylor
- Chapter 11. Spotting Stan: The Fun and Function of Stan Lee’s Cameos in the Marvel Universe(s), by Dru Jeffries
- Chapter 12. Schrödinger’s Cape: The Quantum Seriality of the Marvel Multiverse, by William Proctor
- Notes on Contributors
EXCELSIOR! OR, EVERYTHING THAT RISES MUST CONVERGE
In a letter published in The Fantastic Four no. 54 (Sept. 1966), a reader suggests to writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby that the comic book publisher should sign away film rights to their characters to “someone with sufficient cinematic competence. . . . May I suggest Akira Kurosawa as a suitable director? Of course, only your venerable self is worthy of writing the script if such a film is to have any artistic signifi cance.” The letters’ page editor reassures the fan that upcoming Marvel television productions will feature scripts based on “the actual stories you’ve seen in the pastishes of our Marvel mags—and the artwork of our new, modern-style TV cartoon features will be photographed directly from the mags themselves. . . . So what you—and a zillion other frantic ones everywhere—will be seeing are actual Marvel stories and art brought to life on your home screen, in glowing color, thru the magic of the most dazzling, off-beat Hollywood trick photography we’ve seen in years!”
This exchange demonstrates that from very early on in what the company dubbed “The Marvel Age” of comic books, the publisher appealed to a readership that was older and more sophisticated than the children most typically considered the chief consumers of superhero tales. Further, this dialogue between a fan and a major comic book publisher confirms that a desire for the faithful expansion (in terms of both narrative content and innovative style and technique) of Marvel comic books into other media was shared by the company and its readership equally.
While the resultant animated series referenced in the editor’s response to the fan’s request (The Marvel Super Heroes, which originally ran in syndication in the fall of 1966) fell short of the cinematic brilliance the reader was hoping for, it was significant as Marvel’s first successful licensing of some of its most popular characters for use in other media. Some fifty years later, the promises offered by Marvel to its fans have been realized likely beyond anyone’s expectations in 1966. In August 2009 it was announced that the Walt Disney Company had purchased Marvel Entertainment for a staggering $4 billion, placing Mickey Mouse and Spider-Man (and Donald Duck and Howard the Duck) under the same corporate umbrella. The deal evidenced a remarkable turnaround for Marvel, which had filed for bankruptcy in 1996 (after a major decline in comic book sales), and the company’s renewed fortunes speak to the successful proliferation of its comic book characters in other media fields, most especially film and television. Indeed, the corporate and self-contained storyworld known as the Marvel Universe has been well suited to the international and transmedia spread of a readily identifi able Marvel brand. The new era of the superhero blockbuster that eff ectively began in 2000 with the release of X-Men (a 20th Century Fox production) set the stage for Marvel Studios (a subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment) to produce films based on its stable of comic book characters. This era began with Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) and has continued with an ever-evolving “Marvel Cinematic Universe” that mirrors the extended continuity of the comic books and that has proven to be tremendously successful globally. Disney’s purchase of Marvel is an indicator of the financial viability and cultural power of the Marvel brand, which has effectively retained original Marvel editor in chief and principal writer Stan Lee’s spirit of familiarity and audience participation, as well as the spectacular vision of Lee’s chief collaborator, legendary Marvel artist and co-plotter Jack Kirby.
The expansion of this ethos and vision in contemporary blockbusters has depended upon that sense of audience participation established in the 1960s, a means of appealing on an individual level by confi rming agency within a collective. It is axiomatic that popular culture both creates and satisfies consumer desires, and Marvel has successfully done both in the process of building both a coherent brand and a diegetic universe in the twenty-fi rst century. The generative capacity of popular culture to name and temporarily satisfy consumer desires—a capacity that has only become more germane to the Marvel product with time, owing to the necessity of broadening the brand’s appeal beyond the confines of a comic book readership—is produced through a dialectical relationship between production and consumption cultures. This central dialectic is at the heart of what Henry Jenkins terms convergence culture, “where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways” (2).
An example of this process is the reflexive casting of Samuel L. Jackson as Marvel Comics character Nick Fury in the fi lms Iron Man, Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010), and Captain America: Th e First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011). Fury began life in the comics in 1963 as the white, cigar-chomping leader of a World War II–era combat unit but was reinvented in 1965 as a member of the Cold War–era spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. Given that both iterations of Fury were published concurrently, we can see how the polysemic nature of the superhero genre paradoxically facilitates its syncretic capacities, in this case symbolically conflating the national ideological discourse of the Cold War and World War II. The character underwent a third radical transformation when, in 2002, Marvel Comics obtained permission from Jackson to redesign the character in his likeness for the series Th e Ultimates (2002–2004). This unusual maneuver, in which a long-standing character was essentially re-iconicized as a popular movie star, is presented as a remediation of fan desire in an episode in the comic in which a group of superheroes play a game of fantasy movie-casting with Fury. Their debate about whether Brad Pitt would make a good Captain America or Johnny Depp a convincing Iron Man duplicates the same kind of discourse engaged in by fans, embedding reader subjectivity within the diegesis. When posed with the question of who should play him, Fury’s response is a condensation of self-evident production power and (implied) fan desire: “Why, Mister Samuel L. Jackson, of course. That’s not even open to debate.” Fans themselves are role-playing as Hollywood producers when they engage in this kind of activity, but, just as significantly, they assume the roles of comic book producers when they give themselves control over narrative trajectory in a manner that echoes the diegetic propensity for alterations of time and space. As one fan noted in an online discussion about who should play Captain America, “If only we had a time machine. . . . I think [Paul] Newman would be my #1 choice. . . . But why am I talking about that? We have a time machine! I’m gonna go forward in time now and pick some actors who are too young to play Cap now. . . . We’ll see if that’s as much fun” (“All-Time Casting Call”).¹ Fantasy casting is one of the most prevalent ways by which fans engage with the meaning-making apparatus of popular culture; their projections of ideal casting frequently go unrealized in reality and are always open to debate when actualized.
In subsequently having Jackson actually play Nick Fury in various Marvel films, fantasy casting becomes a doubly mediated, self-fulfi lling prophecy in which Marvel fan subjectivity is located at the center of a matrix of meanings. The central dialectic between innovation and repetition, what Luca Somigli characterizes in serial comic book narratives as a necessary “sameness with diff erence,” confirms that there is no defi ning center or “original” text in the iterative, infinitely reproducible universes of the mass commodity and of the superhero (289). Even as we trace back to an “original” text, this text is equalized among all others, each iteration becoming a tributary into a metatextual pool. While a chronologically first appearance by a character can be valued for that originating status, it rarely assumes powers of whole definition. It is typically regarded as a seed that germinates into the multifaceted metatext of any given present moment, affording a more directly affective and active attachment to the character—and Marvel brand—by fans. Thus, we equally allow for Sergeant Nick Fury, leader of the Howling Commandos, and Samuel L. Jackson, star of Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), as authorizing sources for Nick Fury in Th e Ultimates. Comparably, both fans and the writers and artists of Marvel Comics share authorizing agency. The most appropriate metaphor, then, for mapping these intertextual connections is that of the palimpsest, in which the removal of an “urtext” expands the frames of representation for producers and consumers alike, confirming and actualizing a vaguely defined utopian desire embedded at the heart of the genre and best understood by consumers in aff ective terms. This principle helps us to understand the vital signifi cance of affect in superhero texts, those spectacular, emotionally charged moments in which an intimate bond with characters becomes a deeply felt, immediate experience. Lee’s own signature sign-off line, “Excelsior!,” is a wry nod toward the expected affective fun at the heart of Marvel fandom, which is inferred to be an extension of a comparable fun in the making and selling of Marvel products.
Robert Stam’s use of the concept of the chronotope (by way of Mikhail Bakhtin) facilitates a richer understanding of the inherently convergent nature of Marvel textual production and consumption in this regard. Th e identifiable point of convergence, its affectively realizable moment, is that of the chronotope, that “cluster of distinctive temporal and spatial features within a genre that are understood to be relatively stable utterances” and that produce the simulacrum of reality (204). If we consider the Marvel Universe itself as a genre, the relevance of Stam’s observation is evident across various media platforms in which we can see seemingly disparate textual iterations reconciled by the power of the company brand. For example, an overview of the various iterations of Nick Fury reveals a series of defi ning and distinctive chronotopes. The 1963 version of Fury is defined in part by co-creator Jack Kirby’s personal and professional connection to World War II (he was a combat veteran and co-created the most iconic, patriotic superhero of that era, Captain America), while the superspy version of 1965, created by Lee and Kirby and further developed by Jim Steranko, depends upon the popularity of James Bond and Steranko’s interest in pop-art and op-art effects. What validates each iteration of the character is its strong association with an individual artist who, per company rhetoric, has been allowed to flourish under the aegis of Marvel. Consequently, the more comprehensive glue that holds various chronotopes together within the Marvel Universe is the affect produced in the encounter with each one, guided by the familiar address of the comic books and the inherent continuity of the Marvel Universe. After all, the World War II combat veteran is the same man as the 1960s superspy. In allowing characters to be significantly altered to meet new consumer demands and refl ect shifting cultural norms, Marvel marks itself and its fans as particularly sophisticated and aware of the machinations of popular culture.
The chronotope is thus about the context of moments of production, to be sure, but it is also about all the subsequent moments of consumption and re-production. Therefore, we always understand the chronotope in relation to context (time, place, medium); at the same time, we can read historical processes on the surface of a text via an understanding of the chronotope. The convergences between media platforms, the public and private, the textual and the extra-textual, necessarily reassert the symbolic utility of divergences, of disparity and gaps to be constantly overcome between text and reader, producer and consumer. If we look a bit closer at the transmedia history of Captain America, we can see the degree to which Marvel has effectively exploited that fluidity to this day in the building of an audience for the Marvel brand. While a mainstream audience is primarily familiar with Captain America by way of the hugely popular fi lm Captain America: Th e First Avenger and its sequels, the character has actually had a long, though not always illustrious, history on film and television. He was the star of an unexceptional fifteen-chapter Republic Studios serial in 1944, was adapted (very loosely) for a pair of television movies in 1979 that were most charitably described by fans as “cheesy,” and was the subject of a feature-length film that went straight to video in 1990. This last adaptation has been particularly useful for many Marvel fans as an illustration of how not to adapt a comic book superhero to the big screen. A representative sampling of comments on the film gleaned from the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) includes: “This movie just plain stinks! The costume looks horrible; too many liberties were taken with the characters and the plot lurches forward badly”; and “I’ll be brutally honest, I tried to like this movie. Simply because I find the character Captain America interesting. But everything in this movie is done wrong. . . . This is indeed one of the worst fi lms of all time.”
These film and television iterations of Captain America have been lost in the shadow cast by the character’s reintroduction to the public in Captain America: Th e First Avenger; its sequel Captain America: Th e Winter Soldier (Anthony and Joe Russo, 2014); Th e Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012); Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015); and Captain America: Civil War (Anthony and Joe Russo, 2016). Yet they offer valuable insights into the function of “bad texts,” those adaptations that are regarded as a violation of the character’s essence or viewed as terrible aesthetically (and often both designations are blurred in fans’ evaluation of a particular version). These adaptations may not establish a canon, but they typically confirm its boundaries. In order for a boundary to be asserted, it must be violated, and in this way, the “bad” Captain America films are vital to the integrity of the “good” ones. Aff ect is the determining factor, whether positive or negative. The television movies and the 1990 film are particularly salient examples of the necessary bad text that tacitly validates the latest filmic iteration of the character, at least for many fans.
Fans routinely participate in defining Captain America by disciplining a textual history, asserting the integrity of the character in their evaluation of each iteration. Importantly, this evaluative process also works to assert the integrity of fan subjectivity, which can lead to a more complicated reception of various iterations of a character. It in fact is central to fan discourse, providing the opportunity for fans to assert competing aff ective responses to texts. Quite frequently, an iteration that happens to be a fan’s first encounter with a character can become the subject of deep aff ective attachment. Consider, for example, this positive review of Captain America: Th e First Avenger posted on IMDb: “I will never forget the 1990 fi lm. Th at fi lm is how I was first exposed to the character when I was a kid when I had it on VHS and grew up with it. CA: First Avenger is still a great fi lm though.” This fan can value both the current cinematic version of Captain America and the version that introduced him to the character in part because his relationship to each version puts him in affective contact with diff erent versions of himself safely regulated by the reliable Marvel brand. Our own origin as a fan is ritualistically returned to in the act of celebrating that fi rst encounter with the fan object. The artistic merits of the original fan object are less important than its place in a personal history.
The preoccupation with beginnings is vividly pronounced in the history of Captain America adaptations, which is essentially determined by a recursive narrative return to points of origin (both the 1990 and 2011 fi lms are largely given over to telling the origin of this character). This dynamic is then reenacted by fan and producers alike in acts of remediation. Th us, the very act of remediation marks the 2011 film as dependent on a vast textual history of the character within the rules of the Marvel Universe. According to director Joe Johnston,
I was mildly familiar with the comic book, but I wasn’t a fan of the comic . . . but once I decided to do it, I read every Captain America comic . . . and . . . researched where he came from and where he started and the various iterations of him over the decades. I wanted the origin of the film to be based on a comic book, but I didn’t want to have it be in your face. . . . If there is anything that does not fit into the Marvel Universe, [the Marvel guys] will say, “You are going slightly outside of the lines here.” . . . As long as you don’t mess with that template, you can pretty much do anything. (Zakarin)
It is a self-validating strategy not only for producers but for consumers as well, and it’s a key function of the fi lm’s box-office success. In eff ect, the brand signifier becomes “frozen” in place, erstwhile and perennial. Consider the history of Captain America further. He debuted in his own comic book in 1941, not as a response to World War II, but in anticipation of that war. In fact, the character’s Jewish creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, were expressly interested in agitating for US intervention in Europe. Thus the desires of the creators are remediated through their character in the hope that these desires will become the readers’ as well. Th is synthesis of creator/character/reader subjectivity became a trope of many superhero comic books during the war, and it is because of the consensual nature of a wartime culture that such a synthesis became a dominant trait of the superhero genre. As the World War II–era advertisement illustrates (fi g. 0.1), Captain America is the mediating figure in the crystallization of consumer-citizen subjectivity. Becoming a member of the Sentinels of Liberty confi rms the reader’s ideal citizenship and consumerism. As it says, “wear the badge that proves you are a loyal believer in Americanism.” Affect, linked to the dynamic body of the superhero, moves from the superfi cial patriotism of this ad to the more subjectively experienced affect of internal confl ict that defined Captain America in his return to the comics of the 1960s. It also links the “loyal believer in Americanism” to the “True Believer” in the Marvel brand. This is not simply time-travel but a movement from the ideologically secure confines of World War II–era comic books to the more psychologically and narratively complex (but ontologically secure) Marvel Universe.
Similarly, in Captain America: Th e First Avenger, we see the origin of the character represented as a tacit collaboration between Marvel and the audience in a montage sequence that shows Steve Rogers performing as Captain America in a traveling stage show. We then see a key affective moment (Cap striking Hitler) reproduced in a comic book. The iterative performance of ideal super-citizenship is remediated as the iterative consumption of the fantasy narrative, confirming that such consumption itself is a comparable patriotic enterprise. Tellingly, the comic book we see in the film is the cover of the actual first issue of Captain America. Thus the knowing viewer’s recognition of this reference to the real world sympathetically aligns him or her with Marvel Studios in an affectively saturated exchange, both between the film and the first issue of Captain America, and between the viewer and multiple points of identification within and attached to the fi lm (the unnamed characters reading the comic book, Captain America, the director).
The production and consumption of the film itself reassert these values of the character in the present and link the viewer to a history of production and consumption and anticipations of future iterations, all organized around the Marvel brand and the Marvel Universe. A central value of text, then, is in being constantly anticipated. Th ese transfigurations are articulated by the specifi cs of this textual iteration (the casting, the direction, the scriptwriting, etc.), which satisfies the desire for change, confi rms the authority of defining textual signifiers, and gestures toward the next textual iteration. The blockbuster iteration of the character is placed as the originating textual source for the comic book Captain America. This latest and most successful film version of the character is seen by its producers and many fans as a “corrective” to less well-received versions and as reasserting the integrity of the Captain America metatext even as it confirms the desire for future remediations. This, then, is the secret power of the Marvel Universe: the diegetic and extra-diegetic engagement with tropes of transformation. Like a lava lamp, the Marvel Universe retains a fixed structural dimension that contains a visibly mercurial interior. Always recalling a deeply connected textual history while simultaneously moving toward the future, the Marvel Universe allows fans the pleasures of navigating their own sense of self within its fl uid boundaries.
THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME
These boundaries were established early on by Stan Lee and his coterie of co-creators. In the 1974 trade paperback collection Origins of Marvel Comics, which featured reprints of the first appearances of several canonical Marvel superheroes, Lee composed this introduction to the book’s section on the Fantastic Four (FF):
In the beginning Marvel created the Bullpen and the Style.
And the Bullpen was without form, and was void; and darkness was
upon the face of the Artists. And the Spirit of Marvel moved upon
the face of the Writers.
And Marvel said, Let there be The Fantastic Four. And there was
The Fantastic Four.
And Marvel saw The Fantastic Four. And it was good.
The passage’s tongue-in-cheek verbosity and ad-man hyperbole had become Lee’s stock-in-trade as a writer and as a general pitchman for Marvel since the debut issue of The Fantastic Four in 1961. They certainly obscure the mundane (and inevitably market-driven) reality of the genesis of that comic book title: Marvel’s publisher Martin Goodman encouraged Lee to create a super-team comic book after learning of the high sales fi gures for Th e Justice League, a super-team comic book produced by Marvel’s chief competitor, DC Comics. What Goodman certainly could not have predicted was that Lee, burned out after working for the company since 1939, would create, along with artist and co-plotter Jack Kirby, a superhero team unlike any seen before then. While the team’s powers were reductively archetypal (the stretchable Mr. Fantastic was water, the Human Torch was fi re, the Invisible Girl was air, and the rock-like Thing was earth), their dialogue was written by Lee (a frustrated novelist) in as close to a psychologically realistic manner as superhero comic books had ever been to that point. Th e heroes bickered among themselves nearly as much as they fought villains such as Dr. Doom, and they eschewed secret identities to live publicly in Manhattan as celebrities. From its characterizations to its actual naming of New York (Lee rejected the fictional stand-ins for New York City that DC routinely used, e.g., Gotham and Metropolis), The Fantastic Four aimed for a sense of verisimilitude uncommon for the superhero genre.
Further, Lee encouraged reader participation in the creation of a realistic narrative universe. In the letters page of The Fantastic Four no. 4 (May 1962), for example, a reader points out a mistake in a story, and Lee off ers $5.00 to any fan who can come up with a credible explanation for the error. Th is idea evolved later into the No-Prize, a nonexistent prize offered to readers who spotted continuity mistakes or flaws in logic in the stories (thus, paradoxically, fans could assert their own mastery over Marvel producers and compete with one another for a fictional prize in pursuit of making Marvel comic books more realistic). Lee himself wrote some of these early letters using various pseudonyms, showing that modeling and shaping practices of participatory consumption were central strategies by which Marvel branded itself and by which the consumer/producer binary was blurred. As Lee and Kirby found their way with this new approach (over the course of what would be a 102-issue run together that ended in 1970, when Kirby jumped ship for DC), what would become a Marvel style and a Marvel narrative universe emerged, a template for what has become an ever-expanding narrative world that has quite effectively grown beyond the comic book medium and into highly successful television programming and movie franchises.
That Marvel style (and Lee worked hard to convince readers that there was such a thing by throwing around phrases like “The House of Ideas” to describe the company) was heavily predicated on a reinvention of the superhero genre founded on a conflation of two of the primary genres that the company produced in the 1950s: horror and science-fi ction monster stories and romances. In the late 1950s, when Marvel was known as Atlas,² Kirby created an endless stream of (usually giant) monsters on the rampage in titles such as Tales to Astonish and Amazing Adventures, but he also illustrated romance titles, many of which were penned by Lee, including Teen-Age Romance and Love Romances. Many tropes of both the giant monster and the romance genres are readily apparent in the early superhero sagas that the company began producing with The Fantastic Four no. 1 (Nov. 1961).³ In that comic, for example, melodramatic anxiety underscores the team’s discovery of their superpowers (which they acquired by being bathed in cosmic rays in outer space). When Sue Storm first uses her power of invisibility, the others express dismay that she may never become visible again. When she reappears, Reed Richards, her fiancé, embraces her, exclaiming, “Thank heavens!! You’re all right, my darling!” An upset Ben Grimm (Reed’s copilot on their space venture) interjects, “All right, eh? How do you know, wise guy? How do you know she won’t turn invisible again? How do you know what’ll happen to the rest of us?” Reed angrily replies, “Ben, I’m sick and tired of your insults . . . of your complaining! I didn’t purposely cause our flight to fail!” Ben responds, “And I’m sick of you . . . period! In fact, I’m gonna paste you right in that smug face of yours!” Before the two come to blows, however, Ben transforms into a rock-like behemoth, visually a clear descendant of the Kirby monsters of the 1950s and as affectively charged a subject as any Lee created for the romance comics. In fact, when Ben (now dubbed the Thing) attacks Reed with a tree, he also mocks Sue’s pleas, saying, “‘Reed darling’!! Bah! How can you care for that weakling when I’m here!?” As he swings the tree trunk, Reed quickly pulls his body away like a piece of taffy and then wraps his arms, which have now elongated several feet, around Ben, subduing him. Johnny Storm, Sue’s younger brother, overwrought seeing his compatriots so incredibly transformed, bursts into flame. As he says, “When I get excited I can feel my body begin to blaze!”
That their powers can be regarded as embodiments of psychological traits speaks not only to the central conceit of The Fantastic Four but also to what would soon become the Marvel Universe more broadly: the physical excesses of the superhero genre are almost always a visual affirmation of the excesses of affect that define character subjectivities. Again, the giant monster and the romance comics of the 1950s fi gure signifi cantly in this. The Fantastic Four’s first adventure is a battle with the Mole Man, a rodent-like man who has taken refuge in the center of the earth to escape the scorn heaped on him by the human race. He takes control of an army of giant creatures he discovers there and proceeds to wreak his vengeance on the surface world. The Mole Man’s link between affect and science-fi ction monstrousness here serves as a negative counterpoint to the Fantastic Four (the former retreats underground to confirm his emotional ugliness; the latter reach to the stars to secure their potential for greatness), and their differences are most clearly realized by the fact that, unlike the lone Mole Man, the Fantastic Four are defined very strongly as a group. They are either actually family (Sue and Johnny are siblings) or symbolically so, and thus serve in yet another important way as a model for a Marvel Universe of like-minded characters and their readers. Like the Marvel superheroes, readers could be both idiosyncratically themselves and part of a larger group.
In making their characters psychologically realistic (at least by comic book standards), Lee and company managed to make them more identifiable for their readers. While at that time DC generally was producing cookie-cutter stories that were relentlessly one-dimensional in their moral binaries and visual and written characterizations (their superheroes tended to be so bland on both registers that frequently the only thing that distinguished them were their costumes), Marvel began creating a host of variously ill-tempered or misunderstood heroes who were similar only in their estrangement from the normativity of DC. Following up on the success of the Fantastic Four, Marvel brought readers the Incredible Hulk (the monstrous, green-skinned, and always misunderstood alter ego of a mild scientist), the Amazing Spider-Man (a guilt-ridden, neurotic teen), Thor (the Norse god of thunder), and Dr. Strange (a former surgeon who acquired mystical powers in the Far East). In various ways, these characters and others that would rise to popularity over the course of the next several years offered fresh takes on the superhero genre, revitalizing it along with the company’s fortunes. Certainly these characters conformed to one of the central tropes of the genre: they were outside of the social norm but always worked to defend it (a conceit key to one of the most popular comic book genres of the 1950s, the western, and its cowboy heroes). Yet, because Marvel’s heroes were so extremely unusual visually and psychologically, they more directly called into question the inherent strangeness of the very society (and its members) that they were enlisted to protect. In eff ect, by foregrounding their characters’ sense of alienation, the creators of Marvel superheroes appealed to similar feelings in their readers. DC’s depiction of the alien Superman as completely assimilated into American society (to the point that he defines white heteronormativity) off ered readers a very different point of identification with an idealized subject.
This point speaks to Cornell Sandvoss’s contention that “fantasies of resemblance allow for [a] simultaneously projective and introjective relationship between fan and object” (81). This sort of aff ective relationship between characters and audience is key to the success of Marvel, and the company has routinely exploited it, foregrounding psychological insecurities as a means of bridging the gap between fantasy and real life. The technique makes the act of consumption much more intimate than it could be otherwise and requires that the personal address of the text (in the characters’ psychological realism and in Lee’s editorial voice) is redirected back to Marvel as a corporate textual sign. According to Sandvoss, in such an interaction “the object of fandom forms part of the self ” (100). Accordingly, Marvel comics are no longer simply external objects, but become an externalization of the self. Lee’s common address to the Marvel fans as “True Believers” can thus be understood to indicate a belief in the power of personal transformation through acts of consumption. The Marvel faithful ultimately are confirming a faith in self, echoing the iterative psychological dramas of Marvel stories themselves that are neatly reinforced by the cyclical consumption of these narratives.
Fantasies of resemblance were also encouraged between fans and creators by a number of editorial decisions made at Marvel that were not common in the comic book industry at the time, thus personalizing the company itself for readers. For example, Lee’s decision to alter the standard address of the fan missives published in the letters pages from “Dear Sir” or “Dear Editor” to “Dear Stan and Jack,” and even to make use of nicknames (calling himself Stan “The Man” Lee, for example), did much to encourage fantasies of resemblance. Marvel did the same at times by renaming the characters themselves (for example, “Shell Head” for Iron Man, or “Goldilocks” for Thor), a technique that provided a comparable sense of familiarity for readers with creators and their characters. Lee created a sense of affective authenticity and intimacy with his readers that became a key ingredient in the development of a Marvel brand. Moreover, his direct address to readers in his columns and the letter pages often extended to the covers and stories of the comic books themselves in a manner that is simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-effacing. For example, on the opening splash page of Th e Amazing Spider-Man no. 66 (Nov. 1968), the credits read: “Brought to you in all its brain-blasting brilliance by: Stan (Th e Man) Lee, Johnny (Ring-a-Ding) Romita [and] amazingly abetted by: Dazzlin’ Don Heck & Slick Mick Demeo.” The image of the villain Mysterio looming above the model of an amusement park is adorned at the bottom with a caption shaped like an arrow, helpfully encouraging the reader to turn the page. Th e text in the arrow reads: “And now, let’s prove that the mighty men of Marvel haven’t lost the masters’ touch—!”
Central to this “masters’ touch” was the creative license that Lee allowed his artists, or, perhaps more accurately, Lee’s ability to recognize the enormous talents of creators like Kirby and his general willingness to step out of their way. Dubbed “the King” by Lee himself, Kirby was more vital to the shaping of the Marvel Universe than any other artist/co-plotter. His wildly cosmic vision was the perfect counterpoint to Lee’s psychological angst, neatly exemplified by the introduction of the Inhumans in The Fantastic Four no. 45 (Dec. 1965). A group of super-evolved beings from the island nation Attilan, the Inhumans include Black Bolt, who, because his power is the ability to emit shockwaves vocally, never speaks; Medusa, whose mountainous red hairdo (which looks like a bouffant rinsed in cosmic rays) can be animated by her into tendril-like appendages; and Lockjaw, a teleporting creature who looks like a giant boxer with antennae. As Sean Howe notes, “With the introduction of the Inhumans, it was suddenly apparent that the Marvel Universe was infinite. . . . [A]s each issue tumbled into the next, picking up momentum, expanding the cast, the grand space opera absorbed forgotten characters and established the relationships between them all” (72). Typical of the collaboration between Lee and Kirby, the Inhumans are introduced into the Marvel Universe when Johnny Storm falls in love with Crystal, the sister of Medusa. Affect, then, is the key to accessing a world beyond oneself, a diegetic conceit that is also central to the consumption of these cosmic comic book tales. The creation of a Marvel Universe was strongly informed by a sense of intimate rapport between the company and its readers, with both the characters and the writers and artists equally serving as intermediaries between the corporate entity “Marvel Publishing” and readers. The seemingly infinite nature of the diegetic Marvel Universe was reflected extra-diegetically, per Lee’s hyperbolic editorial voice, by the apparently boundless creativity and innovation of the company’s stable of talent (collectively dubbed the “Marvel Bullpen”) and the requisite good taste and intelligence of its readership.
The resurgence of the superhero in Marvel’s hands was due in large part to the publisher’s unorthodox approach to creating content. Th e Marvel style was informed by the collaboration encouraged at the company between writers and artists, which resulted in a looser and freer creative process than the more assembly-line-like system in place at DC. At DC, a writer (under the often heavy-handed stewardship of an editor) would produce a completed script that would then be passed along to an artist to illustrate. Thus the two primary creative forces behind a comic never met, exchanged notes, or collaborated in any organic way. The Marvel method was much less rigid and required a more synergistic relationship between writer and artist. As the principal writer in those early years, Lee would typically provide the artist with a brief outline, usually a single typewritten page (though sometimes Lee would simply discuss his story outline faceto-face with the artist). After the artwork was completed, Lee would write the text for the captions, word balloons, and thought bubbles. In fact, as the company’s unique approach to the superhero genre became progressively more popular throughout the 1960s, and Lee became preoccupied with shilling the company’s ever-expanding line of comics on college campuses and in the media, this approach became increasingly necessary.⁴
Aside from the more creatively relaxed production style, there were a number of other elements that set the Marvel product apart from that of its chief rival in the 1960s: centrally, Stan Lee’s editorial vision and soap opera writing style, and the striking artistry of many of Marvel’s coterie of artists (which, in addition to Kirby, included Steve Ditko, Gene Colan, John Romita, Jim Steranko, and John Buscema, among others, as well as talented inkers such as Chic Stone and Joe Sinnott, and colorist Stan Goldberg). Th e company’s emphasis on the unique talents of its stable of creators was key to its success with college-age readers. Marvel balanced the rigorously conservative demands of the mass market with a clear appeal to individualism; thus, the notion of a “Bullpen” signifies a collective working toward a shared goal in a playful manner, and a House of Ideas suggests both domestic security and creative innovation. The Fantastic Four no. 51 (June 1966) is one of the most celebrated Marvel comic books of this period and arguably best represents the company’s innovative approach to superhero comic books. This issue depicts Ben Grimm in a soul-searching funk about his monstrous appearance. Kirby off ers what has become one of his most iconic images with the opening splash page of a morose Thing standing in a rainstorm on a New York street (fig. 0.2).
The dramatically static nature of the image (so in contrast with Kirby’s usual depictions of dynamic bodies in impossible motion) heavily underscores the emotional turmoil below the Thing’s orange, rocky surface, which was played out in Lee’s purple prose (reflexively summed up by the Th ing’s self-admonishment about “sounding like a soap opera”). Quite simply, it is a superhero comic book about what it means to be a hero, while acknowledging an intense ambivalence about being super. A parallel plotline, in which fellow FF member Reed Richards is tasked with mastering “the space-time principle,” and is temporarily trapped in “a four dimensional universe” called the Negative Zone (which Kirby represented in part through the spectacular and innovative use of photo collage), echoes Ben Grimm’s existential self-reflection. As Charles Hatfield has noted, Marvel comics of this period “partook of a childlike sense of wonder: the young reader’s sense of being overawed by a huge, looming world” (Hand, 153). Th is childlike sense of wonder is essential to unpacking the value of Marvel comic books at this time because, while Hatfield suggests that Marvel’s audience was predominantly children, the fact is that adults made up a growing segment of their readership. For example, a letter published in The Fantastic Four no. 21 (Dec. 1963) is from a reader who identifies herself as a fi fty-three-yearold grandmother. Thus, the relatively sophisticated artwork and concepts induced a childlike sense of wonder for a reader in her fifties, for example, as much as it might for one under ten (as Lee writes in response to this letter, “Congratulations to all of you young-in-heart fans!”).
Arguably what most strongly facilitated the maturation of Marvel narratives alongside the evolving sensibilities of their readership was Kirby’s visionary artwork, which reimagined the visual and conceptual possibilities of the genre literally on a cosmic scale. As Hatfield observes, “Th e most visionary and invigorating element of Marvel was Kirby’s graphic mythopoesis, that is, his talent for ideation and world-building through drawing. . . . He drew worlds into being”(Hand, 153). While Kirby drew stunning, even cosmic worldscapes (an approach that Lee, serving as unoffi cial art director, encouraged other Marvel artists to emulate), Lee poured psychologically realistic characters into them. It was this synthesis of the external and the internal that most strongly defined the developing Marvel Universe throughout the 1960s, and that was more fully explored in the 1970s by writers such as Roy Thomas, Doug Moench, and Steve Gerber and writer-artist Jim Starlin.
As space explorers who are perpetually weighed down by the gravity of their emotions, the Fantastic Four are arguably the quintessential superheroes of the 1960s. This was an era in which American society was compelled to examine defining national values by way of the increasingly volatile discourse surrounding the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, while at the same time it was inspired to support the race to the moon as a symbolic victory for universal liberty and peace. The inner turmoil of Marvel superheroes (from the perennially insecure Spider-Man to the tormented Hulk) offered catharsis for a nation that was itself contending with the tension between its best and worst selves. In fact, the social anxieties of the decade were perhaps most profoundly informed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, a blow to the national psyche that arguably required that subsequent depictions of American heroes refl ect ambivalence regarding the youthful optimism of the Kennedy era. Th us the typical Marvel superhero is defined in equal parts by optimism and self-doubt. Such characterizations proved quite meaningful to the college-age audience that Marvel attracted. Their angst-ridden superheroes, always simultaneously questioning and shouldering the burdens of their roles as heroes, echoed a corresponding uncertainty about identity typical of young adulthood and exacerbated by the social tensions of the period. Consequently, Marvel characters became popular icons on college campuses, a phenomenon reinforced and mirrored by the enthusiastic welcome Lee received on the college lecture circuit. In a 1965 poll by Esquire magazine, college students ranked Spider-Man and the Hulk as two of their favorite counterculture symbols (alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Che Guevara)
BRING ON THE BRAND GUYS
Marvel branded itself in explicit contrast to DC, which Lee would constantly refer to in the pages of Marvel comic books as their Distinguished Competition, a label that acknowledged DC’s dominance in the fi eld while also subtly undermining its comic books with the hint of staidness and staleness. DC was for squares, Marvel was for True Believers. As Lee put it, “I tried to make the readers feel they’re more than just casual readers but we’re all part of a family, we’re all part of an inner-group. We’re having fun and the outside world isn’t aware of it. And I tried doing that with the Soapbox column I wrote, with the Bullpen page” (Zakarin). Marvel’s promotion of highly stylized artists worked in symbiotic rapport with Lee’s editorial voice, so that it was not only that Lee came across to readers as a chummy uncle, but that he came across as one with a lot of very cool friends. In this way, Marvel touched on the affective appeal of the emergent underground comix scene of the era, while steering well clear of its politically and culturally challenging content. As Charles Hatfield observes, “Th e countercultural comix movement—scurrilous, wild and liberating, innovative, radical, and yet in some ways narrowly circumscribed—gave rise to the idea of comics as an acutely personal means of artistic exploration and self-expression” (Alternative, ix). Marvel appropriated the signifiers of difference and hip otherness with both its characters and its creators as a means of engaging its readers in a triangular dialogue that challenged hegemonic ideas of the superhero as a reductive symbol of good, of comic books as disposable entertainment, and of the reader as a child (or childish).
Take, for example, Steranko’s work on Captain America no. 111 (March 1969), in which the illustrator employs a highly surrealistic style to depict a hallucination suffered by Captain America’s sidekick, Rick Jones (fi gs. 0.3 and 0.4). The emotional crux of this story, like that of all of Lee’s Captain America tales in this period, is Captain America’s lingering guilt over the death of his sidekick Bucky in World War II. This inner conflict is further complicated by his efforts to train Rick Jones as a replacement. Steranko radically revises Lee’s predictable trope of regret and self-doubt by representing Captain America’s guilt as a transference-induced death trip experienced by Rick. The regulated flow of narrative action via sequential panels is utterly disrupted here by the bold use of sequential images occupying single splash pages. Like Rick himself, the reader is pitched into an LSD-inspired vortex in which the principle threat is not that of physical death, but of the annihilation of identity. The sequence poses that most fundamental of questions to the reader—“Who am I?”—and implicitly provides the answer in the act of consumption itself (“I am a Marvel fan, because Marvel comics are so amazing, so incredible, so uncanny.”).
The Marvel superhero’s essential appeal and the contrast between the Marvel and DC superheroes are both apparent in how the companies’ characters were appropriated by a 1960s youth culture. Lee’s strategy to create a sense of belonging to an inner group was confirmed by fans in their affective responses. For example, the band Country Joe and the Fish, best known for its anti–Vietnam War song “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” recorded “Superbird” in 1967, a musical swipe at Lyndon Johnson that links the president and Superman as simplistic emblems of national identity to be rejected (“He’s flying high way up in the sky just like Superman, / But I’ve got a little piece of kryptonite, / Yes, I’ll bring him back to land”). Th e song’s narrator then promises to recruit the help of Marvel superheroes to rid the world of the threat of Superbird (“I got the Fantastic Four / and Doctor Strange to help him on his way”). This clear articulation of the deep cultural divide between the ideologically conservative Superman and the stable of Marvel heroes was later reflexively echoed in Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. no. 15 (Nov. 1969), in which Country Joe and the Fish briefly appear at a concert performing “Superbird.” This knowing wink to readers eff ectively confirmed Marvel’s hipness in stark distinction to the ever-square DC. This difference in company cultures is further exemplified by Lee’s August 1969 “Soapbox” entry, in which he notes that Country Joe and the Fish are visiting the Marvel office as he is writing, thereby eff ectively making creative producers (both the Marvel bullpen and the rock group) and their audiences collaborators in the production of a vaguely antiestablishment ethos.
Such vagueness was, of course, quite intentional, and it is worth noting that Marvel’s characterizations were not more politically explicit than those of DC’s characters. Certainly many of the Marvel superheroes had at least two dimensions to Superman and Batman’s one, but Marvel (like any prudent corporate entity) generally steered clear of overt political statements. The fact that characters such as the Hulk and Spider-Man were embraced by college students indicates the degree to which Marvel successfully touched on general affective tropes of resistance to appeal to a countercultural sensibility without being “counter” to anything specifi cally. When the company did evoke social unrest, it was rarely about the war in Vietnam or civil rights. For example, the cover of Th e Amazing Spider-Man no. 68 (Jan. 1969) features Spider-Man swinging above a group of angry students holding protest signs, and is emblazoned with the provocative title of that issue’s story, “Crisis on the Campus!” The crisis that the students are protesting is the proposal by the administration at Empire State University to turn a dorm for low-income students into private housing for visiting alumni. Lee’s script does employ countercultural buzzwords of the era. In a curious move, the leader of the protest, Josh, is African American, and the support for low-income housing is racialized by the use of terms such as “whitey” (directed at Peter Parker), “soul brother,” and “Uncle Tom.” Peter himself sympathizes with the students’ cause, but he refrains from joining them because of his personal dislike of Josh. The protesters are thus aligned with the superhero in their fight against injustice (the administration is dismissed by the students as “the establishment”), but the superhero himself is not incorporated into their political actions. Meanwhile, the narrative is mostly taken up with Spider-Man’s habitual self-doubt and self-pity and a subplot in which the villainous Kingpin steals a rare tablet from the very dormitory the students are protesting about. Consequently, Spider-Man’s battle with the Kingpin also requires that he save the protesters; he remains sympathetic, but he is also superior to them in his role as superhero. Th e protesters may be at odds with “the establishment,” but they need Spider-Man (and because Spidey is misunderstood and threatened by the police, he reflects and actualizes the protesters’ perceptions of unjust persecution).
Reader identification with Spider-Man thus coalesces around Peter’s self-doubt, his outsider status as Spider-Man, and his affective alignment with the counterculture. The very ideological opaqueness of Marvel superheroes then encourages readers to fill in the gaps, making them complicit in the production of meaning.
Marvel’s success, then, was partially developed around aff ective tropes aimed at a postpubescent audience and sustained by an increasingly complex storyworld identified as the Marvel Universe. By 1972 Marvel was the most successful comic book publisher in the field, distinguishing itself from DC in part by creating a richly complex narrative world that connected nearly all of the comic books it published. While this strategy was certainly a shrewd marketing ploy to sell more comics, Marvel also recognized, starting in the early 1960s (well before the editors at DC did the same), that comic book audience members were not only interested in following narratives across titles and over an extended period of time, but also in building individual libraries of comics and continuing to buy new ones long after conventional wisdom dictated they would lose interest. If Marvel was the House of Ideas, then, in contrast, DC was a Factory of Ideals, a company stuck in the past, generally producing aesthetically and moralistically uncomplicated fairy tales with little or no recognition that the audience for comics could be older or might continue reading beyond their childhood and early teen years, and be interested in complex, multi-issue, multi-title storylines. Marvel readers actively participated in the construction of the meaning of Marvel because, by extension, it reflected their own meaning, their own identity; they had grown up with superhero comic books, and now the Marvel superheroes were growing up along with them.
Marvel’s ability to appeal to readers’ desires to both be part of a group and strongly individualistic was a canny strategy and was perhaps one of the most instrumental ways by which the company engaged them. Key to this strategy was Lee’s willingness (some would say eagerness) to become the face and voice of Marvel. He created a familiar and familial rapport with readers that, like the content of the comics themselves, fostered an empathetic connection with readers by projecting an aff ective authenticity. As Marvel narratives became increasingly complex, running across consecutive issues of a title and even from title to title, captions would frequently remind readers about previous plot points and in what other comics they appeared. Lee also developed a bank of catchphrases and slogans, such as “’nuff said!” and “Excelsior!” Lee and Kirby even sometimes appear as themselves within the diegesis of the comics (starting a practice that would be continued in later years by other Marvel creators), such as in Th e Fantastic Four no. 10 (Jan. 1963), in which we see the two in the Marvel offi ces struggling to come up with a new villain for the Fantastic Four. Suddenly Dr. Doom enters the room and forces Lee to invite Reed Richards to discuss future comic book plots, so that the villain can kidnap him when he arrives. Such self-reflexivity foregrounds the presence of comic book producers and puts them in more intimate rapport with the readers by allowing them to serve as intermediaries between fan and object, per Sandvoss’s dynamic of projection and introjection. Lee and Kirby’s appearance in the diegesis creates and actualizes reader desire to enter the storyworld, blurring the boundary between production and consumption cultures in the process.
These various strategies legitimate fan subjectivity, a key trope of Marvel comic books. Lee was careful to always make his readers feel as though they shared in the creation of the Marvel line. In the letters page of Th e Fantastic Four no. 24 (March 1964), Lee makes this appeal to his audience: “It is our intention, here at Marvel, to produce comics which are so well-written and well-drawn, that they’ll elevate the entire field in the minds of the public! After all, comic magazines are an art form, as creative and enjoyable as any other! It is up to us, the producers, and you, the fans, to make comics something to be proud of.” The Marvel Style required writers and artists to work synergistically together, and Lee’s rhetoric implicated readers in this process as well. Such rhetoric validates the purchase of Marvel comics by readers by branding the product as art, in the process validating the readers themselves as sophisticated connoisseurs who share in the responsibility (and benefits) of the creation of the Marvel Universe, which is both a narrative one and an extra-diegetic one of fans and producers in sympathetic alliance.
This alliance also benefi ted from coincidental shifts occurring in comic book fandom at the time. Comic book fandom first became a nationally organized entity in the early 1960s, a fact underscored by two key historical developments. First, in October 1964, fan Jerry Bails published the fi rst issue of CAPA-Alpha in response to the explosive growth of fanzines in 1963 and 1964. CAPA-Alpha solicited work from fans, and Bails published what he considered to be the best of that work in each issue (future Marvel writer and editor in chief Roy Thomas was an early contributor). Second, this period also saw the creation of the earliest comic book conventions, beginning with a modest event in Detroit in May 1964, but then advancing to a more fully realized effort in July in New York that featured comic book-industry guests (including Ditko and Marvel secretary Flo Steinberg). Fans were increasingly becoming more aware of and connected to one another, validating their fandom as they continued to read comics long after many of their peers had given them up as a childish pursuit.
Again, both the increasing sophistication of Marvel comics and the company’s ability to appeal to readers as tacit collaborators in the shaping of the Marvel Universe dovetailed neatly with these separate developments in fandom itself. Marvel also seems to have recognized these trends, as evidenced by its creation of an in-house fan club, The Merry Marvel Marching Society, in late 1964. One of the items that members received when they signed up was a 45 rpm record that featured brief sound bites from various members of the “Marvel Bullpen.” Again, Marvel saw the value of maintaining a familiar rapport with readers and aptly exploited this avenue to sell comic books and ancillary products. This strategy on the part of the company speaks to what Paul du Gay regards as a “‘cultural economy’. . . [that] draws attention to the ways in which forms of economic life are cultural phenomena; they depend on ‘meaning’ for their effects and have particular discursive conditions of existence” (6–7). The early 1960s then saw comic book readers coming together to recognize themselves and each other as such, and Marvel responded in kind by facilitating self-identification as a Marvel fan, at least partially dissolving the barrier between producers and consumers. It is significant, for example, that in Origins of Marvel Comics, Lee invokes his own childhood love of the pulp character The Spider as a primary motivation for creating Spider-Man. He thus articulates a narrative of transformation from fan to professional that makes his own textual self-production in the comic books more personal and identifiable for readers. As Lee states, “We tried to talk to the readers”; equally telling, he observes, “I always wanted to be in the advertising business” (Zakarin).
Lee’s interest in advertising is not particularly surprising, given that consumer culture grew stronger after the Depression in the United States, neatly coinciding with the birth and growth of comic books and the superhero genre that came to dominate it. The success of Marvel in the 1960s can, in fact, be traced back to the key period in which the medium and the superhero genre took shape, World War II, and the conflation of citizenship and consumerism. At this time, according to Lizabeth Cohen, “to ensure the speedy arrival of this postwar utopia of abundance, patriotic citizens were urged to save today (preferably through war bonds) so that they might become purchaser consumers tomorrow” (70). The low-cost purchase of superhero comic books, which frequently featured anti-Axis propaganda, allowed consumers to buy into fantasies of American exceptionalism and triumphalism over both the Axis and the Depression. The superhero also served as an indication of the utopian affect implied to follow victory over these elements. The purchase and later recycling of comic books (for paper drives) facilitated the realization of this utopian vision. It is of further interest, then, to consider how this period has come to be romanticized by fans as the “Golden Age” of the superhero comic book, and why these discarded comic books, sacrificed as part of the utopian consumerist vision of the time, have become such rare collectors’ items from the “Silver Age” on. Th e era is “golden” both in terms of the infancy of the superhero genre and in terms of the collectability of the comic books in which they appeared.
These labels (which originated as marketing tools by comic book back-issue dealers in the early 1960s, when such a market was fi rst becoming organized and more widespread) are certainly echoed in the appellation “The Marvel Age,” which became a routine slogan that the company employed to brand its products as both of the moment and also rich with historical potential. Interestingly, one of the earliest instances of the phrase is on the cover of Strange Tales no. 114 (Nov. 1963), which features Captain America and the Human Torch battling each other, and a caption that exclaims, “From out of the Golden Age of Comics into the Marvel Age, Captain America Returns to Challenge the Human Torch!” What is so compelling about this terminology is that Captain America had eff ectively disappeared from newsstands in 1949 (a revival of the character in 1953 was short-lived). While the Human Torch is a member of the Fantastic Four, the character is visually based on a World War II–era hero of the same name and with approximately the same powers (though an android). While the story reveals that this is not the real Captain America after all (it is a villain posing as Cap), it is still quite telling that the cover depends upon reader knowledge of company history and familiarity with the relatively new term “Golden Age.” Clearly, Lee felt that readers were familiar enough with it that the notion of a “Marvel Age” could have traction with them. In fact, the issue (and especially the cover) was something of a test to gauge reader interest in the possible return of Captain America. Conforming to a by now familiar self-reflexive tone, the story concludes with a scene in which Johnny Storm consults “his prized collection of old comic mags.” Of Captain America, he recalls enthusiastically, “Boy! I sure dug this guy the most!” (fig. 0.5). In the final panel Johnny wonders what became of Cap, musing, “Is he still alive? Will he ever return? I’d sure like to know!” A thought balloon conjures up the real Captain America (that is, the authentic Cap is constituted by the conflated desires of Johnny and the readers), and a direct-address caption states, “You guessed it! This story was really a test! To see if you would like Captain America to return! As usual, your letters will give us the answer!”
Having been duped by an imposter, just as the reader is when looking at the cover, Johnny is inspired to recover his love of the original character by returning to his comic book collection. Thus the Silver Age character’s affective attachment to the Golden Age character informs and validates a comparable response in readers, as measured by their written responses to the challenge posed at the end of the story. Presumably the reaction was favorable, for the “real” Captain America was reintroduced in Avengers no. 4 (March 1964), a “physical” embodiment for Johnny and a textual one for readers of personal desires recovered by the affi rmation of memory produced by contact with comic books of the past. This new “Marvel Age” was thus ostensibly the product of a dialogue between the company and its readers. Lee recalls: “I think I really treated the whole line as a gigantic advertising campaign. I don’t mean that we tried to put anything over on anyone, but I felt we had good stories, and we were all very excited about what we were doing. I wanted the readers to feel the same way, to feel that we were all part of an ‘in’ thing that the outside world wasn’t even aware of. We were all sharing a big joke together and having a lot of fun with this crazy Marvel Universe” (Daniels 105).
One of the key aspects of Marvel’s approach in this period was this embrace of a perceived outsider status to affectively cohere a brand identity. Certainly this strategy was augmented by the increasing importance of market segmentation in postwar America, which appealed more directly to ideas of individualism than earlier marketing approaches, and was, to a large extent, a response by advertisers to the influence exerted by consumers. As Cohen observes, “it was no accident that the rise of market segmentation corresponded to the historical era of the 1960s and 1970s, when social and cultural groups such as African Americans, women, youth, and senior citizens began to assert themselves in a way that came to be called ‘identity politics,’ where people’s affiliation with a particular community defined their cultural consciousness and motivated their collective political action” (308). Marvel’s rise in sales over the course of the 1960s (culminating in it supplanting DC as the top comic book publisher) was also fueled to a large degree by the company’s ability to recognize and appeal to an older demographic while still bringing in new young readers. Th e company’s emphasis on a sophisticated meta-continuity, its investment in artistic creativity, its appeal to an outsider status, and its canny knack for making affective bonds with readers were all important aspects of its success.
Marvel’s success in the 1960s was strongly dependent on its constant self-promotion as an iconoclastic publishing house, its stable of outsider heroes, and its address to readers as collaborators in the company’s ostensibly irreverent enterprise. According to Cohen, postwar America saw “a new commercial culture that reified—at times even exaggerated—social diff erence in the pursuit of profits, often reincorporating disaffected groups into the commercial marketplace” (309). Clearly this was a strategy that Marvel successfully pursued, but it’s also one that the company enhanced by facilitating long-term brand loyalty with teenagers. Marvel thus appealed to the first age demographic that advertisers had targeted. According to Cohen, “what began as an awareness during and after World War II of a distinctive ‘teenage’ stage of life, with its own language, customs, and emotional traumas, very quickly developed into a consumer market. . . . Before long, being a teenager became defined as a unique consumer experience” (319). If, per Cohen, the segmentation of children as consumers in the 1950s and 1960s “sought to lay the groundwork for a lifetime of consumption,” Marvel improved upon this idea by promoting a lifetime of Marvel brand loyalty, making the consumption of Marvel products a unique experience (320). And when Lee exhorted readers to follow the dictum “Make Mine Marvel!” he was not only inspiring a lifetime commitment that was consistent with a postwar consumer ethos, but also cementing a company philosophy that positioned it for maximum advantage in the current era of globalization and multiplatform storytelling.
The goal of this present anthology is to chart some key points of the fl uid borders of the Marvel Universe in order to contribute to a deeper understanding of how and why the Marvel brand has been so dependable and changeable for both producers and consumers for over half a century. The essays that follow explore some of the most fascinating and complex developments of that universe, which began as an inspired attempt to catch up with DC in the world of comic book publishing, and which has become one of the most successful transmedia enterprises of the twentyfi rst century. These essays are categorized according to their focus on either Marvel comics or films, although such a division is not meant to assert a clear distinction between these categories (as evidenced by the transmedia references in many of the chapters). Such a separation does indicate the historically significant position of comic books as foundational texts for the ever-expanding textual universe that recursively draws on its past as it continues to evolve.
In the opening chapter, “Reforming the ‘Justice’ System: Marvel’s Avengers and the Transformation of the All-Star Team Book,” Mark Minett and Bradley Schauer examine the transmedial life of the Avengers, focusing on narrative formula, characterization, and continuity as key building blocks in the Marvel Universe. They turn to David Bordwell’s notion of “historical poetics” as a model for understanding the various permutations in the Avengers metatext over the decades. Minett and Schauer are specifi cally concerned with the development of the all-star team comic book in its fi rst two years and argue that it was vital to the establishment of a larger storyworld involving all Marvel comic books. In doing so, they offer a productive comparison with industry practices at DC, especially in relation to the all-star team (in their case, the Justice League), that moves us away from a reductive DC/Marvel binary and provides insights into the ways in which the development of a Marvel Universe was inevitably uneven and defi ned as much by its failures as its success.
Henry Jenkins explores the complicated function of the auteur within the company in chapter 2, “Man Without Fear: David Mack, Daredevil, and the ‘Bounds of Difference’ in Superhero Comics.” Jenkins performs a close analysis of Mack’s highly stylized work on Daredevil, focusing on Daredevil: Echo-Vision Quest, in order to map out the ways in which the company challenges its own conventions as a means of reasserting its role as a House of Ideas. The essay is rich in visual examples of Mack’s highly idiosyncratic approach, exemplified by his use of paints and collage, to illustrate the degree to which Marvel editors allowed Mack to push the accepted limits of the comic book form and the superhero genre. Jenkins borrows a concept from film studies, the “bounds of difference,” to articulate how Marvel effectively appropriated a strategy from classical Hollywood cinema by facilitating innovation within the elastic frame of genre conventions. His essay charts how Mack’s work enabled a response from readers that, while sometimes contentious (some expressed a strong disapproval of its “artiness”), was valuable to the company as a means of reinvigorating the character of Daredevil and, more significantly, the aura of Marvel as an innovative comic book publisher. Jenkins places Mack’s work in a historical framework, comparing it to the comparably innovative work done by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz on the same character. In doing so, Jenkins’s essay suggests that Marvel maintains a long-term commitment to innovation that will likely remain a valuable means by which it will engage with readers well into the future.
The collection then shifts to a nuanced evaluation of Marvel’s representation of female characters in chapter 3 with Anna F. Peppard’s essay “‘Th is Female Fights Back’! A Feminist History of Marvel Comics.” Peppard usefully expands the scholarly discourse regarding representations of women in superhero comic books, which, as she wryly notes, has historically glossed over them as male masturbatory fantasies. In her analysis of such Marvel superheroines as the Cat, Ms. Marvel (later Captain Marvel), and the She-Hulk, Peppard explores the significant ways in which, beginning in the 1970s as a response to feminism, Marvel has sought to address a female readership. In her analysis she observes that the idea of the female reader who might enjoy identifying with a superheroine sans the conventions of melodrama or romance has historically been regarded by comic book producers as being as much of a fantasy as the superheroines themselves. Peppard looks at various marketing strategies aimed at a female readership indicating the degree to which Marvel itself has struggled to understand this readership by consistently approaching female readers as a problem to be solved rather than as simply an audience to be satisfied. In the end, her cogent analysis capably maps Marvel’s blind spots and failures in their numerous attempts to incorporate empowered female characters (and, consequently, female readers) into the Marvel Universe. In doing so, she also demonstrates the very real value of correcting Marvel’s decades-long myopia regarding female characters and readers.
Derek Johnson addresses a similar issue in chapter 4, “‘Share Your Universe’: Generation, Gender, and the Future of Marvel Publishing,” off ering a rigorous analysis of Marvel’s recent attempt to reach out to new readers in its “Share Your Universe” campaign. He foregrounds the signifi cance of Marvel’s role as a comic book publisher (a role frequently lost in the shadows cast by the movie franchises derived from the comics) and notes the ways in which the radically amplified transmediality of Marvel in recent years has complicated its relationship with longtime (mostly male, mostly older) fans. Johnson’s essay identifies a central dialectic in the production and consumption of Marvel products—the old and the new—and the impact that this dialectic has had on Marvel’s corporate identity and, consequently, the identity-formation of its fans. He focuses on Marvel’s “Share Your Universe” effort, which aimed to draw in a new generation of fans by appealing to veteran fans to serve as institutional gatekeepers. As Johnson argues, this effort was severely handicapped by Marvel’s focus on recasting its central fan base (adult males) as fathers; the company thereby handed over to older fans the great responsibility of inspiring a comparable devotion to Marvel comics in a younger generation. As Johnson illustrates, the very gendered and generational ideologies of this approach ultimately proved too problematic, a finding that suggests the very clear limitations that persist regarding fan identity and the superhero genre.
In chapter 5, “Breaking Brand: From NuMarvel to MarvelNOW! Marvel Comics in the Age of Media Convergence,” Deron Overpeck brings together a number of thematic concerns in this volume by looking at how Marvel reinvigorated its brand identity in 2000 with the launch of “NuMarvel,” in which the company privileged creators over continuity and favored “decompressed” storylines. Both strategies proved quite suitable for the translation of comic book content to the trade paperback form, and this chapter unpacks the degree to which NuMarvel was more of a marketing ploy to grow an audience than it was an attempt to reenergize its existing fan base. Overpeck considers how the company’s renewed emphasis on creators (with their Young Guns and Marvel Architects campaigns) privileged the role of creators over the continued development of a dense storyworld, a maneuver that increased sales for flagship titles such as X-Men and Amazing Spider-Man, coinciding with the successful transition of these characters to movie screens in 2000 and 2002, respectively. Ultimately, Overpeck argues, the reinvention of Marvel beginning in 2000 was an important step in the company’s transition from a content-driven company to a licensing-driven one. As such, the company incorporated commercial practices of other media, especially the auteurism of film, as a means of facilitating the transmedia growth of Marvel content. As Overpeck’s essay ably demonstrates, these changes actually reconfirmed the central place of comic book production within its ever-changing brand development.
Issues around the transmediality of Marvel content are the chief concern of Darren Wershler and Kalervo A. Sinervo in chapter 6, “Marvel and the Form of Motion Comics.” They evaluate how Marvel’s various forays into the world of motion comics have compelled the company to privilege circulation over continuity and a historical record, both chief characteristics of the production and consumption of Marvel comics in print form. If readers have long valued the print comic book as an archive of the Marvel Universe, Wershler and Sinervo ask, in what ways is the integrity of that universe, and the relationship between the company and its fans, altered by the abandonment of a material archive? In addressing this issue, they make a compelling case for the value of digital comics as a means of proliferating the Marvel brand while maintaining its reputation as an innovator in the comic book industry. Yet, as the authors observe, the fact that actual innovation is minimized in the production of motion comics contradicts such rhetoric. In pursuing its interest in mining a new market, Marvel has focused on only one aspect of the digital form (motion comics) that inherently hinders creativity. Ultimately, they contend, Marvel’s turn toward the digital comic book market seems driven by a desire to reconfi gure comic books as ancillary products of the films based on Marvel characters and storylines. Their essay compels us to consider the future of comic books as more than simply an abstraction of the past, the vaguely recalled source material for the fi lms.
The anthology shifts its focus to Marvel films beginning with chapter 7, “Transmedia Storytelling in the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ and the Logics of Convergence-Era Popular Seriality,” by Felix Brinker. This chapter off ers a detailed study of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as developed in film and television by Marvel Studios. Brinker considers how the template for a rich storyworld that Minett and Schauer mapped out in chapter 1 now utilizes a number of media platforms. He looks at how the inevitable promotion of transmediality, resulting from the proliferation of digital media in recent years, is key to the serialization of Marvel texts across media platforms. Further, he considers the role of this digital environment in the development of the self-reflexivity that has been so strongly characteristic of the Marvel product for decades. Finally, Brinker makes a compelling argument that the MCU now stands as a game-changing model for a new kind of seriality. In this way he productively moves the conversation about the Marvel Universe into a larger consideration of a rapidly changing mediascape and the pivotal and leading role that Marvel is playing in reshaping it.
In chapter 8, “The Marvel One-Shots and Transmedia Storytelling,” Michael Graves considers a particular strategy by which the Marvel Universe and the comic book audience’s relationship with it have expanded. Graves examines the short fi lms that are only included in the Blu-ray and digital releases of the Marvel theatrical films, which provide further backstory for characters and deepen the links between the films. Graves looks at how these Marvel One-Shots conform to and deviate from Henry Jenkins’s seven principles of transmedia storytelling, modifying Jenkins’s concepts of extractability and immersion. Although for Jenkins, these concepts are generally opposed to each other, Graves emphasizes the unidirectional fl ow of the Marvel Universe, showing that extractability and immersion can in fact be utterly consistent with one another. From this position Graves illustrates the degree to which the construction of the Marvel Universe is as dependent upon its audience as it is upon its producers. His analysis of the One-Shots reveals the more pronounced value in them of characters who are relegated to supporting roles in the fi lms. The development of these characters deepens the textual heft of the films by providing fuller backstories and strengthening narrative connectivity. In typical Marvel fashion, this strategy is not simply canny marketing; it also reinforces the Marvel ethos of pluralism and difference as a subjective asset rather than an ideological disruption to be contained and managed.
In chapter 9, “Spinning Webs: Constructing Authors, Genre, and Fans in the Spider-Man Film Franchise,” James N. Gilmore explores the ways in which paratexts have become valuable tools of negotiation between audiences, producers, and texts, using the Spider-Man franchise as Exhibit A. He specifically evaluates the ways in which special edition DVD/Blu-ray releases of the films use features such as filmmakers’ commentaries to appeal to fandom by exploiting the cache of insider knowledge, consumer participation, and brand value. Gilmore traces the roots of this strategy back to Stan Lee’s editorial presence in the Marvel comics of the 1960s, and to how Lee replicated discursive practices but also complicated them in considerations of authorship, adaptation, and genre. In considering how the Spider-Man films are positioned as a “fan’s franchise,” Gilmore challenges the conventional take that DVD/Blu-ray special features are secondary to the filmic text. He articulates the significant ways in which they allow that text to be not only re-watched but also rewritten. DVD/Blu-ray releases, Gilmore convincingly argues, discipline the multivalence of the franchise by strategically employing the rhetoric of brand fidelity via genre and authorship tropes. His use of the Spider-Man franchise is all the more compelling given that the Spider-Man fi lms made between 2002 and 2014 were produced by Sony, not Marvel Studios. As such they offer a persuasive example of the discursive power of the Marvel brand.
Addressing the relationship between the comic books and fi lms, Aaron Taylor scrutinizes the value of performance in portrayals of Spider-Man on film in chapter 10, “Playing Peter Parker: Spider-Man and Superhero Film Performance.” In his close reading of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfi eld’s interpretations of Marvel’s most popular character, Taylor considers the intimate relationship between performer and role as mediated by the brand power of Marvel. This connection is particularly salient, he contends, given Spider-Man’s status as the flagship character of a twenty-fi rst-century trans-media conglomerate. Taylor cogently unpacks the ways in which larger economic, technological, and discursive forces exert unique infl uences on each actor. Foregrounding an inherent self-reflexive trope of the cinematic adaptations of comic books, Taylor explores the multiplicity of bodies on display and at play in superhero performance: namely, the actor’s physical body and the fictional body of the character. The relationship between the actor and the character is complicated, he argues, by the star status of each actor in competition with the iconicity of Spider-Man (substantiated by the cultural archive of the character and audience memory). Th e integration of the two produces what Taylor regards as a third body, or a “body-toomuch.” Taylor concludes that the star is subsumed by the icon in a process that visually and affectively embodies for viewers the actual diminishment of star power. Within the Marvel Studios system, stars are generally more motivated by the promise of long-term exposure than by the promise of large paychecks to sign up for roles. As Taylor observes, the doubling of the star/superhero body denies viewer identification and instead requires that the viewer become a kind of partner with the actor, each hyperaware of the highly mediated and collaborative nature of the performance. In this way, Taylor offers us a fresh way to think about Marvel’s long-standing strategy of encouraging a sense of participation by fans and how these fi lms perhaps can actualize it.
Turning from Marvel’s most iconic character, Dru Jeff ries offers up a consideration of arguably its most iconic creator in chapter 11, “Spotting Stan: The Fun and Function of Stan Lee’s Cameos in the Marvel Universe(s).” Analyzing the construction of Stan Lee’s persona as the public face of Marvel, Jeffries explores how Lee is deployed within the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an authorizing link to the company’s past (and its comic books), as a unifying symbol across various studio productions, as a playful signifi er of the intermedial and intertextual connectedness of the comic book and film storyworlds, and as a primary architect of the Marvel Universe. Jeff ries is most concerned with this last point, and his essay eff ectively illustrates how Lee’s cameo appearances in Marvel fi lms offer opportunities for fans to actualize their own relationship to Marvel via competing discourses regarding Lee. As Jeff ries observes, these cameos themselves contain their own contradictions, as they validate the films in which they appear based largely on viewer recognition of Lee as a principal author of the Marvel Universe, even as this role is hotly contested by fans, and as they promote Lee as a tacit author of the films in which he appears. These complex signifi cations actually serve to affirm the polysemic qualities of Lee’s persona as, variously, a comic book visionary or a self-serving company shill. Ultimately, Jeffries compels us to reflect on the ways in which Lee is needed by fans as either—or, more tellingly, as both at the same time.
In a similar spirit of innovation, William Proctor completes this collection with his essay “Schrödinger’s Cape: The Quantum Seriality of the Marvel Multiverse,” chapter 12, in which he deploys both narrative theory and quantum physics in an analysis of the Marvel multiverse. Proctor’s concern is with the ways in which Marvel manages its various narrative threads by means of what he calls “quantum seriality,” the ordering of competing textualities within a shared storyworld. It is the very nature of the Marvel Universe as transmedial, Proctor argues, that allows for the management of a plethora of alternate realities and parallel narrative systems. This management has a twofold effect that echoes what Deron Overpeck sees as the value of NuMarvel: it potentially brings in new readers and inspires renewed dedication to the Marvel brand by long-term fans. For example, as Proctor aptly points out, the creation of the Ultimates Universe, a parallel to the canonical Marvel Universe, marks a strategy by which the company can attract new readers because the stories are not burdened by deep backstory; at the same time it reengages longtime fans by reworking familiar characters. Ultimately, Proctor says, all of this management of parallel worlds symbolically places the reader outside of time-and-space, where he or she can view the Marvel multiverse and appreciate its complex design. Consequently, as we have seen with Marvel from the very start of its world-building enterprise, the fan is a valued participant in the affi rmation of the meaning of the Marvel Universe (and, by extension, the Marvel brand), something both diegetic and extra-diegetic, internal and external, personal and public.
As these essays make clear, the Marvel Universe is a richly complex construct, the product of a number of ever-shifting economic, industrial, technological, and artistic forces. Instead of the biblical-style genesis that Lee invoked in Origins of Marvel Comics back in 1974, these essays suggest that the Big Bang is a more apt metaphor. In the collision of artistic vitality, the superhero genre, and a more sophisticated readership, the Marvel comic book revolution of the 1960s incited the birth of a narrative universe and a media empire that continues to grow far beyond anything imagined back in 1961. In fact, this collection of essays could serve as a vital starting point for further academic explorations of this fascinating universe. ’Nuff said? This conversation’s only beginning.
. Unless otherwise noted, emphasis in quotations is reproduced from the original.
. The company was called Timely when it was founded in 1939, was rechristened Atlas in 1951, and began featuring the Marvel name on covers beginning in 1963.
. In fact, both genres are neatly synthesized later in the run of Th e Fantastic Four when the Thing begins a romantic relationship with a blind sculptor, Alicia Masters, who, for the sake of further melodramatic angst, is the stepdaughter of the villainous Puppet Master.
. Lee increasingly gave up his writing and editing duties over the course of the 1960s and in 1972 named Roy Thomas editor in chief while, at the same time, beginning the practice of labeling every Marvel comic book opening credit page with “Stan Lee Presents.” In 1981 Lee entirely removed himself from day-to-day operations when he relocated to Los Angeles to develop Marvel properties in the film and television industries.
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“Well-written. . . .[A]nd packed with information about the workings of the Marvel Universe. There is much to ponder and learn here.”
“Make Ours Marvel is a well-timed anthology that fairly and critically examines Marvel’s long history as one of the great myth-makers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.”
Studies in Twentieth and Twenty-first Century Literature
“In an age of Marvel dominance in popular culture, there are almost no academic books about the comics brand. This book is a significant, and needed, contribution to the field, in locating Marvel—and its tumultuous universe and corporate history—at the center of global popular culture. To the book’s strength, it is not a ‘film studies’ or ‘comics studies’ anthology, but both, and much more.”
Derek Kompare, Southern Methodist University, editor of Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Entertainment Industries and author of Rerun Nation: How Repeats Invented American Television