Thursday, July 29, 2004

Marvel Comics

Growing up, among the many comic books I read were those published by Marvel Comics. Marvel Comics pretty much revolutionised the superhero genre in creating superheroes who actually had problems such as the average person might have, the perfect example being Spider-Man.

I had not yet been born when most of the major Marvel Comics characters had been introduced. In fact, my first introduction to Marvel characters was not in the comic books, but on television. In 1967 cartoons based on both Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four debuted. I watched both cartoons regularly, so that when I was old enough to read, I naturally sought out Spider-Man and Fantastic Four comic books. Indeed, my brother and I inherited a good deal of comic books from our neighbours. Among them were several Marvel titles, including Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Thor, and others.

Of course, Marvel Comics was not a new company. Its origins lie in the pulp magazines that flourished in the first half of the 20th Century. Martin Goodman published pulp magazines under the "Red Circle" imprint. In 1939, with comic books growing in popularity, he decided to expand into comic books. Initially, the comics were published under the "Red Circle" format, although eventually they become known as Timely Comics. In fact, the company's first comic book, Marvel Comics, took its name from one of Goodman's pulps, Marvel Science Stories. It was in that first issue of Marvel Comics that two of their major characters debuted: The Human Torch and The Sub-Mariner. Their third major character, Captain America, would debut in his own magazine some time later.

Timely Comics proved successful during the Golden Age. In fact, the Human Torch, The Sub-Mariner, and Captain America were among the most popular superheroes of the Golden Age. Unfortunately, as the Golden Age came to a close, superheroes declined in popularity. Timely had ceased publishing even their most popular heroes by 1949. Timely changed its name to Atlas and stumbled along through the Fifties. An attempt to revive their superhero line in 1954 failed. In 1956 they had to cancel most of their titles and strike a distribution deal with rival National Periodical Publications (home of Batman and Superman) just to survive.

Fast forward to the early Sixties and another name change, this time to Marvel Comics (named for the first comic the company had published). Editor Stan Lee noted the popularity of The Justice League of America at National Periodical Publications. He thought that perhaps another superteam could prove popular, albeit this new team would be different from any before. The Fantastic Four primarily fought crime as a team, only rarely engaging in solo adventures. They eschewed costumes for team uniforms. And none of them had secret identities; their identities were publically known. Transformed during a space flight by cosmic rays, the Fantastic Four were: Reed Richards, AKA Mr. Fantastic, a scientist who had the power to stretch his body and the leader of the group; Benjamin Grimm, AKA The Thing, their pilot who had been transformed to a creature appearing to made of rock and possessing incredible strength; Susan Storm, The Invisible Girl (later called The Invisible Woman), who had the power of invisibility and the power to generate a force field; and Johnny Storm (Sue's brother), the Human Torch (a different one from the Golden Age character), who could burst into flame and fly.

What also set The Fantastic Four apart from other superteams before them is that they had problems similar to the average person. Teenager Johnny went through the usual crushes. Ben worried about the effect his montrous appearance might have on the average person. Despite facing such incredible villains as Dr. Doom (their archnemesis), the Fantastic Four existed in a world closer to our own.

The Fantastic Four proved to be a hit and soon Stan Lee was creating new heroes for Marvel Comics. The Hulk, Antman, Daredevil, and others soon joined The Fantastic Four. By far Lee's most successful creation was Spider-Man. Lee developed the idea of a teenager bitten by a radioactive spider who gains the powers of a spider. Unlike other heroes, Peter Parker was an outright nerd, picked on at school, unpopular with girls, and constantly beset with problems. Publisher Martin Goodman hated the idea, but gave Stan Lee the go ahead to write a Spider-Man story for the last issue of Amazing Fantasy. Sales for that issue went through the roof and several months later Spider-Man got his own title.

The lasting appeal of Spider-Man is easy to see. Peter Parker is an average person, in some ways a less than average person. For all his great powers, he is still picked on by bullies, he still cannot get a date for Saturday night, and he is still in constant danger of losing his job. On the one hand, the reader can identify with Peter. He is not a handsome millionaire like Bruce Wayne, nor is he a successful reporter for a major paper like Clark Kent. He is an average guy who just happens to have the powers of spider, as well as the problems an average guy would have. On the other hand, I suspect many readers can't help but think they would handle being a superhero better than Peter, that if they had his power they would not have his problems. Of all of Marvel's characters, Spider-Man is perhaps the only one who matches Batman and Superman in popularity. Indeed, there have been several animated TV series based on the character, one live action TV series, and two major motion pictures!

Of course, as a child I discovered other Marvel Comics characters than Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four. Among these was Iron Man. Iron Man was millionaire industrialist Tony Stark. While in Vietnam he was hit by shrapnel, some of which lodged near his heart. To stay alive he created an armoured suit with magnets to keep the metal away from his heart. Naturally, being in a comic book, the armoured suit also allowed him to fly and could emit "repulsor" rays. I always loved Iron Man primarily because I loved the idea of an armoured suit that allowed its user to fly and fire "repulsor" rays.

I also loved the Mighty Thor (the Norse god of thunder), although by the time I discovered the comic book I had already read enough on Norse mythology to know that it was very inaccurate. For one thing, the god Thor was not a clean shaven blond, but a redhead with a wooly beard. In the comic book, Thor was also mortal Dr. Donald Blake. I can't recall how Thor became trapped in the body of a mortal man, although eventually Blake was dropped entirely and Thor was Thor full time.

Anyhow, I always tended to be more of a DC Comic fan than a Marvel Comics fan--after all, Batman and Green Lantern were my favourite heroes. But I have always enjoyed my time spent reading Marvel comic books. To this day, I am still a fan of Spider-Man. There will always be a soft place in my heart for Marvel Comics.

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