The Real Origin of the Marvel Universe – Marvel Comics

Artwork by Sian Hopkins.

by Nicole Rees-Williams

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is arguably the most successful film franchise of our generation. It’s hard to think back to a time before Marvel dominated our screens in both film and television, so today we will be taking a look back at the true origin of the Marvel Universe, the comics. 

Comic books used to have a reputation, this reputation pinned comic books as a sort of picture book to entertain a child for an hour or so. Back in the day, DC ruled the comic book world in terms of super-hero comics. The heroes presented such as Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman were very much the clean cut, ‘do gooder’ type, and the plot tended to focus on a basic good vs. evil plotline. And sure, this is fine. But these stories were not gripping a large audience, considering comic-books were still mostly bought for children.

Enter –  Fantastic Four, Marvel’s first crack at a super-hero comic (back when Marvel was still branded as Timely Comics).  Fantastic Four centred around a group of heroes instead of singular ones, inspired by DC’s Justice League of America. But unlike the DC do-gooder image, Marvel gave their heroes substance. Instead of being born with super-human powers, their talents were inherited because of a freak-accident which already situates the story as much more believable than the heroes that had dominated comics so far. Fantastic Four was set on earth which assisted in creating a more relatable read. And, unlike DC, these heroes were flawed. They had real-life issues to deal with such as arguments within the group, breakups, and many other conflicts. The team’s appeal was that the plot navigated through relatable, human problems whilst trying to adapt to their super-human powers. This depth to the comic stories is what began to draw in older readers.

After the success of Fantastic Four, Timely Comics officially became Marvel Comics in 1961, with new stories such as Incredible HulkThor, and Marvel’s biggest seller Spider-Man, being released in 1962, all drawing in a larger fanbase. Iron Man was released the following year of 1963 but was surprisingly unpopular compared to the rest of the heroes. When Iron Man was made into the live-action film we all know and love the character had a significant makeover, changing a basic tin-man outfit, (think Tony escaping the cave in IM1,) to an instantly recognisable red and yellow suit. Considering it was Iron Man that sparked the birth of the MCU, it is admirable to consider the risk Marvel took by basing a universe upon one of Stan Lee’s lesser known comic characters. 

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From left: first Iron Man comic art, Tony Stark cave suit in Iron Man (2008), Iron Man’s suit for the MCU films.

Along with Marvel Comics getting its own branding came the birth of the ‘Marvel Method.’ The way of creating stories in Marvel Comics was quite unique. A brief synopsis of the plot was given to the artist, the artist would then fully illustrate the issue, and afterwards the more detailed plot was built around the artwork. This particular method, however, didn’t come without its issues. We have all heard of the lovable Stan Lee – because he gave himself most of the credit. Jack Kirby, the illustrator, would often go uncredited for major plotlines that were his idea. In the first issue of Fantastic Four, the credit was “written by Stan Lee, illustrated by Jack Kirby,” but a lot of the writing would not exist without Kirby’s ideas. For example, Kirby added the Silver Surfer to Fantastic Four yet he did not receive any credit, even for such a major character. Lee and Kirby continued to have a rocky relationship, which eventually ended in Kirby leaving Marvel in 1978 to join rival DC. 

Despite the drama behind the scenes, Marvel Comics continued to dominate the comic-book sales for their daring and important storylines. In 1971, a controversial issue of The Amazing Spider-Man centred around an anti-drug abuse plotline, tackling topics that were often avoided in comics in favour of light-hearted super-hero tales. The substance-centred plotline threatened the Comics Code Authority, but Lee continued to release three more similar storylines. The Code was afterwards revisited, allowing drugs to be used as a plotline if they were portrayed as “a vicious habit.” Another pivotal point in comic book history was Marvel’s release of the first issue of Black Panther in 1966, marking the first black super-hero in comic history. These good kinds of risks were extremely successful in widening Marvel’s target audience, and comic books continued to transform from children’s literature to collector’s items.

To make the move from Comics to the staggering MCU we know today was not an easy ride. In the late 90’s, comic-book popularity was rapidly decreasing. So, in order to not completely plummet, Marvel sold the rights to some of their most popular characters in an attempt to keep money coming in. Big character names such as Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and the X-Men were sold off, so when Marvel wanted to create its own cinematic universe they were struggling with which of their more unpopular heroes to pick that could kickstart the series of films. The final decision on Iron-Man came from showing a group of children pictures of some potential characters and asking them which one they would like to play with as a toy. The kids picked the ‘robot looking one’ (Iron Man,) and voilathe Marvel Cinematic Universe was born.

It is quite incredible how much effort Stan Lee put into linking all his characters together to create one big universe that actually makes sense. He, along with other brilliant writers and illustrators, created this universe from scratch. The universe was so well-thought out that it is still a booming success all these years later. Marvel is dominating the movie industry now, and it’s sometimes easy to forget that all this success came from a form of literature that some still deem ‘for children.’