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The history of Marvel Comics
0311 echoes
Effingham 4-H member Mallory Morgan gives a presentation to the Springfield Farm Bureau chapter. - photo by Photo provided

Effingham 4-H member Mallory Morgan competed in January at District Project Achievement at Rock Eagle, and placed second in the history category. This earned her a spot to compete at State Congress in July in Atlanta.

She is a ninth-grader at South Effingham High School, and her parents are Len and Kathy Morgan of Guyton. She recently shared the following presentation at Springfield’s Farm Bureau chapter:

“Legend tells us one thing, history another. But every now and then, we find something that belongs to both.”

Marvel, a house of ideas, is creator of some of the most exciting televised and filmed entertainment in the world. This multi-million dollar franchise has become a legend, as well as a part of history.

The story begins in New York, in 1939, where writer Martin Goodman founded the company under the name of Timely Comics. America had just recovered from the Great Depression, but was headed toward yet another historical hardship, World War II. At a time when newspapers had little good news to report, readers turned to the back pages for escape and relief from reality. The daily comic strips were uplifting and reflective of the true American spirit. At that time, Timely consisted of funny animal comics, war stories and romances, not costumed avengers. Then came the creation of superheroes. After DC, or Detective Comics, Timely’s long-time rival, created Superman, other companies exploded to replicate their success by creating their own characters. In the midst of the chaos, Timely managed to create its own unique character.

That October, Timely Comics No. 1 was published, featuring The Human Torch. It was a huge success and nearly 900,000 copies were sold. The following year, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby joined the business as editors and artists. Goodman’s cousin, Stanley Lieber, also joined the company as an assistant editor. The events of the war were evolving, and these new recruits would play a key role in the impact of the industry.

In the 1940s, the majority of early comic book writers were Jewish, so they were very concerned about the events of the war in Europe. Goodman was also Jewish, and in 1941, decided that he wanted a new hero created, one that would represent American patriotism. Later that May, Simon and Kirby collaborated and a true American soldier was born: Captain America. This became Timely’s biggest seller and the series was constantly read by American soldiers. Some statistics even show that the comic outsold Time magazine. However, the comics depicted very disturbing images to the Axis powers, and the company members were sent death threats from the Nazi party multiple times in response to the comics. Once the war ended in 1945, Timely changed their name to Atlas Comics, and returned to producing their old comics, unaware that the industry would soon take a turn for the worse.

In 1954, psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham published a book titled “Seduction of the Innocent” condemning comic books and blaming them for juvenile deliquency. As a result, parents were very reluctant to have the comics around their children, in the fear that it would corrupt their minds. Dr. Wertham held hearings to investigate the effect of comic books on Americans. To keep the industry from going bankrupt and diminishing for good, a group of publishers united to form a self-censorship organization: the Comics Code Authority. Every comic published was sent to this organization to be approved before the books were marketed. However, despite the Authority, the comic industry nosedived. More than 800 people lost their jobs, and nearly 40 comic book industries went out of business. Within months, 10 or fewer companies remained.

In 1955, the introduction of television in America also depleted the industry’s popularity. People were not reading as frequently, and as a result, every superhero comic was suspended, and the horror genre took their place. Horror was more popular than heroes at that time, and even Martin Goodman began to publish strange and gruesome tales. At this point, Stanley Lieber grew tired of writing these pointless comics. It was very embarrassing to work in the industry at this time, so he changed his name to Stan Lee to hide his involvement. In fact, he almost quit the industry altogether.

In 1961, Atlas was on the verge of closing as well. Instead, to start afresh, Atlas changed their name to Marvel comics. Before leaving the company for good, Stan Lee decided that he wanted to write one last comic, the way he really wanted to write it, without the approval of the Comics Code Authority. So, he sat down with Jack Kirby to produce the first team of heroes in a comic, the Fantastic Four. It was a big hit, and Marvel’s first comic under their new name. The most popular of the characters was The Thing, a monster. So, Stan Lee decided to expand on the idea, and the Incredible Hulk was born.

Many key characters in the Marvel universe come from the Atomic Age, a period in history when the development of the atomic bomb was surfacing. The creation of the Hulk brought readers into a world where it was possible to survive an atomic tragedy. The comics sold well, so Goodman asked Lee to create another hero. He decided to create a never-before-seen hero, one that was different from any of the other characters. He then designed the world’s first teenage superhero, Spider-Man. This was revolutionary in the business because all of the previous superheroes did not have to deal with the real world in the way that he did. When the mask came off, Spider- Man was just ordinary Peter Parker, who still had to manage all of the problems of his “normal” life. This added a whole new level of realism to the comic that was never before seen in the industry. After Spider-Man, Thor was released, followed by Ant-Man and in the same month, Iron Man. These led to the production of Dr. Strange, Nick Fury, the Avengers, and X-Men. America was ready for the revival of superheroes: the Marvel age of comics. This was the most creative period for Marvel, and there were very few limits on what they would publish.

In 1972, Martin Goodman decided to retire, and named his successor, Stan Lee. The Marvel age of comics was booming. The company went from producing six books a month to 23. Comics were being distributed directly to stores, and Marvel was gearing up to tackle the televised market.

Marvel produced a lot of cartoons, but the first Marvel movie was “The Hulk” and it was the best thing that happened for Marvel to kick off their involvement in television. Despite the lack of resources for special effects in that time, it was a big hit to viewers and became a huge success, popularizing the company.

As the ‘70s came to a close, comic conventions came to life and retail stores began selling not only new comics, but back issues and collectibles as well. This propelled Marvel into the direct market and ushered them into the next decade.

The 1980s were a very interesting time in the industry, because the idea of the anti-hero emerged. The idea was to turn the hero upside-down and examine their flaws, and it was very popular. Some examples include Deadpool, The Punisher and Venom. It was a time when the industry was very successful, and graphic novels hit the New York Times best-seller list for the first time ever. Everything important that happened in illustration was happening in the comic book industry. It was also Marvel’s most financially effective period, and they finally surpassed DC comics in sales. Little did they know that disaster would soon strike.

In 1989, Ronald Perelman bought Marvel from New World Entertainment. He decided to invest in trading card and toy companies, borrowing a large sum of money to invest in these companies. These companies failed, and Marvel was in debt. In 1996, Marvel filed for bankruptcy, despite the great success of their characters, due to a missing interest payment. The industry suffered. The individual characters would have survived, but combined survival for them was a different story.

It is only when the hero is at his lowest can he really become his greatest. It was probable that Marvel was going to close for good, but the employees decided that was not the case. In the year 2000, Marvel hired Joe Quesada to become editor-in-chief. He decided to turn around the company and write about the real world, just as Jack Kirby once did. Shortly after 9/11, one of the most popular debates of the time was, “How much of your liberty are you willing to sacrifice for more safety?” Marvel decided to tackle the issue head-on in a comic called “Captain America: Civil War.” This comic was very popular, and Marvel was now financially stable. After the comic was released, Marvel decided to take a giant risk, and founded Marvel Studios, financing their own films and creating the beginning of what is now known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Their first film created under their own franchise was “Iron Man,” released in 2008. It was very risky for the business, and was predicted to be a failure. The movie’s success was bigger than anyone speculated, bringing in $500 million in the box office worldwide. Due to their success, Disney purchased Marvel, and the company thrived. Marvel then approached Netflix, with TV series like “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” “Iron Fist” and “Luke Cage.” Currently Marvel has the TV series “Agents of SHIELD” (or Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division), and has recently released another series, “Agent Carter,” both on the ABC Family network.

Another key movie for Marvel is “Guardians of the Galaxy.” It was released Aug. 1, 2014 and was predicted to be Marvel’s biggest failure, but was the most successful movie of 2014, bringing in almost $95 million on opening weekend alone. This movie set the stage for even more films to come, and has made Marvel even more popular. Marvel continues to expand on the cinematic universe, and has released the names and dates for many movies in the future, such as “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Ant Man,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “Black Panther,” “Captain Marvel” and “Guardians of the Galaxy 2.” The cinematic universe of Marvel Studios has become the biggest aspect of pop culture on the planet, and will continue to bring many more action-packed films to the big screen.

In conclusion, Marvel, from its early days as a small publishing company in New York, to one of the most influential companies in history, has impacted our culture and history greatly. For more than 75 years Marvel has managed not only to entertain Americans, but has also guided us through some of the best and worst periods in history. Marvel will continue to produce heroes that not only entertain us, but live within us as well.

This was compiled by Susan Exley of Historic Effingham Society with information provided by Mallory Morgan. If you have photos, comments or information to share, contact Exley at 754-6681 or