Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Tying it All Together

Stan Lee did more than create new characters with problems and continuity. He created a new universe. In other comics in the 1960s everything happened in a vacuum. Nothing that happened in a comic ever seemed to affect what went on in other comics, even ones featuring the same character. You sometimes wondered if these guys lived in the same universe as each other.

No so at Marvel. They not only lived in the same universe, they ran into each other constantly. Early issues of the Fantastic Four guest starred the Hulk and Ant Man. In his first official issue, Spider-Man showed up at the FF's headquarters and asked for a job. When the FF fought the Hulk in New York, the Avengers showed up. Daredevil helped a powerless FF retake the Baxter Building from Dr. Doom. For a short time Iron Man was under criminal investigation and the Avengers called to ask what was going on. When the Avengers introduced a new lineup, half of it were reformed X-Men villains.

Thor fought Magneto (by special arrangement with the publishers of the X-Men magazine). Everyone fought the Circus of Crime. The Sandman went from a Spider-Man villain to fighting the Torch and eventually joining the Frightful Four.

Both Captain America and a young Reed Richards helped Sergeant Fury fight the Nazis and Fury helped the FF fight the Hate Monger.

Then there were the fights. Half the time two heroes introduced themselves by fighting. The Avengers fought the Sub Mariner and the Hulk. Spider-Man fought Daredevil, the Torch, and the Hulk.

And if anyone needed legal assistance, they went to Matt Murdock (Daredevil).

This was a slick marketing move. Once readers were exposed to a character through a guest appearance they might follow him back to his own book. It worked for me. I started reading Marvel with a copy of the X-Men that my mother's hairdresser's son had. I wanted more copies but he didn't have any (it was only up to issue 8 at that time) but he did find a copy of the FF guest starring the X-Men. Since the FF were monthly and the X-Men were bi-monthly, I found a copy of the FF the next time I went to the comics store and I was hooked.

Stan pushed this backstage, also.

Not long after he started the FF he started getting fan letter so he printed them. In between he would write replies. Interspersed with these, he plugged other books. Eventually he added a whole page for telling what was going on in the other Marvel comics.

Stan also invented the Marvel Bullpen. He said in a recent interview, "I'm the biggest liar in the world." There was no bullpen. The were actually freelancers who only showed up at Marvel's tiny office a couple of times a month.

That's not how Stan portrayed it. He gave the impression of a huge room full of artists and inkers, all having a great time. If you read Marvel comics you felt like you knew the creators, at least a little.

It all worked. Stan combined a new approach to comics with clever promotion. He also retuned characters as needed. Stan never threw out a perfectly good character. He just gave him an overhaul.

The Hulk seemed to get one every other issue of the sort-lived run of his comic. After it was cancelled, the Hulk became the back-up feature for Giant Man who was a revamped version of Ant Man. Daredevil changed from an ugly yellow and black costume to his red and black one. Iron Man went from grey to gold to red and gold and lost a lot of bulk along the way (as well as a skirt and the antenna coming out of his shoulder). The Fantastic Four started in street clothes and quickly adopted uniforms.

Even the Hulk's buddy, Rick Jones showed up for a while as Captain America's sidekick before going back to the Hulk.

Sometimes making over a character worked (the Hulk). Sometimes it didn't (Giant Man). Stan had confidence in the characters that often paid off. At other companies, if a character was cancelled that was it. He was gone. At Marvel it meant that the character would be back somehow. Sometimes they joined a team. Other times they came back in a different form. Two of Marvel's biggest successes, the X-Men and the Hulk, were cancelled and brought back.

The 1960s were good to superheroes. Batman was on primetime. Other superheroes were on Saturday morning. In fact, along with spies, they totally dominated Saturday morning for a couple of years.

Issues of Superman and Batman regularly sold a million copies. Supermarkets and drug stores had large displays of comics.

And surprisingly, Marvel, the little cut-rate upstart on the block, was the top seller.

DC finally noticed and decided to do something to win back readers. But what?

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