They’ve Got Issues: The Story of Marvel

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S1: Slate plus members, it’s survey time again, which means it’s your chance to tell us what you think about Slate plus and Slate, it’ll only take a few minutes and you can find it at Slate Dotcom Survey. Shemya Williams has been into comic books since she was six years old when she saw that first Spider-Man movie starring Tobey Maguire.

S2: When I got back, I rated my older brother’s just he had tons of comic books he had from Watchmen to Spider-Man to all these different, you know, range of comics. And I would just go read them, even though, you know, I could barely read. I was just still looking at the pictures, flipping through and seeing all the different things. And I just I loved it and I followed it ever since.

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S3: When people talk about the stereotypical comic book nerd, Shemya maybe isn’t who they picture. She’s not a Genex white guy. She’s a black woman in her 20s. But our superhero era, which in many ways began with that Spider-Man movie, has swept up millions, maybe even billions of people from every walk of life. Comic book characters have become the most reliably sellable subjects in modern entertainment, appealing to all sorts of demographics all over the world.

S4: When I was growing up, people used to make fun of people, you know that we’re like nerds and, you know, read comic books and now it’s normalized. Now everyone’s watching Marvel movies and it’s not something that you’re the other.

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S5: Now, if you’re not watching it, you’re the other.

S3: If there’s one company that’s defined the superhero era, it’s Marvel, the company that invented Spider-Man and Hulk and Iron Man and on and off.

S4: I feel like most of my life has been around Marvel and I’ve stuck with Marvel this long, that they’ve just they have all my money, they have all of my attention, everything.

S1: Shemya loves Marvel so much, even at an early age, she became obsessed with working at the company.

S4: I had three dreams in my life. One was to me, Oprah, two was to buy my mom a house and three was to work at Marvel.

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S3: She hasn’t yet bought her mama house, but she did meet Oprah and she did get a job at Marvel and its New York headquarters.

S4: The second I got the offer, I was like, I’m taking it. Do not recommend. I definitely could have gotten more money, I think. But I was so just ecstatic that I didn’t think it was possible to work there. And then the fact that I did get to work there, I was just like I wanted to jump out of my skin. It was just it was the best feeling ever compared to I don’t even know what I don’t even know anything better than that. I think that was one of the best moments of my life.

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S1: This sort of devotion to Marvel might be a little out of the ordinary, but not that much, just look at the box office for Marvel movies, the excitement over new Marvel TV shows. The crazy thing is that Spider-Man movie that started it all for Shemya back when she was six. It came out in 2002. But less than a decade before that Marvel had gone bankrupt, its business was in shambles. Lots of people failed to imagine how Marvel could ever hope to make any real money off its collection of silly characters in Capes. Marvel’s 1990s bankruptcy wasn’t even the first time in the company’s history that it stumbled hard, but each time its reemerged stronger than before. Like that super villain you think you’ve defeated who suddenly reappears in the final battle. How is Marvel so resilient? It seems like its real superpower is making comebacks.

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S3: I’m Seth Stevenson. Welcome to Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalist. Today on the show, they’ve got issues, the story of Marvel.

S6: Basically, Superman had become this big hit and a lot of magazine publishers saw that getting into comic books could be a fruitful endeavor.

S1: Sean, how is the author of the book Marvel Comics, The Untold Story? He says that after a company called Detective Comics, or DC, debuted a Superman comic to great success in 1938, a lot of other people decided to hop on the comic books bandwagon. Among them was a New York publisher named Martin Goodman.

S6: Martin Goodman was not a particularly a comic book fan. He was a lot more interested in his pulp magazines and later on some book publishing, but he also knew where the money was.

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S1: Goodman called his venture Timely Comics. It would eventually be renamed Marvel. Its first superheroes work, the Human Torch, who could control fire and the submariner who could do stuff underwater. Neither was a Superman level hit. The company’s Captain America character, which debuted in 1941, did find some wartime success, but it sort of petered out by the end of the decade. For the first chapter of its existence, Marvel was mostly just a knockoff of D.C., the class of the category.

S6: The Marvel Comics were not as well drawn. They were not written as coherently. They were just sort of an off brand.

S1: Marvel bounced along until the 1950s when comic books in general were suddenly scrutinized as a potential bad influence on children too salacious, a waste of time, a warper of minds and a creator of juvenile delinquents to keep out.

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S7: What have you learned? And so far, their investigation on the subject of comic books. All of our testimony from a psychiatrist and the children themselves show that it’s very upsetting, that it has a bad moral effect and that it is directly responsible for a substantial amount of juvenile delinquency and child crime.

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S6: They had the same reputation maybe as like heavy metal records in the 80s. And as a result, the industry really collapsed.

S1: Marvel drifted into non superhero genres, horror westerns, and it barely scraped by. Its first big comeback happened in the early 1960s when the antique comic book fervor died down and superheroes resurged. There’s a lot of debate about who is most responsible for Marvel’s 1960s renaissance. Increasingly, people credit Marvel comic book artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko for shaping the characters in the stories. But it was clear who the face of Marvel was named.

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S8: Stanley. I have been writing stories for the young generation for the past 30 years. And in the course of that time, well, I would imagine I receive about two to 300 fan letters every day, probably as much as the Beatles.

S3: Stanley was a cousin by marriage to Marvel founder Martin Goodman. We had been around Marvel as a sort of gofer since 1939, cleaning out ashtrays and getting the artists fresh ink. In the 1960s, he began to become more involved in the creative process. He also sees the spotlight.

S9: Stanley was a really good salesperson. He was a good showman. He was sort of an ambassador of the art form. And he was very happy to be invited on talk shows or to be interviewed for magazines and talk about how, you know, comic books had this endless potential. And if Shakespeare and Michelangelo had been around today, this is how they would have collaborated.

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S10: Can we be assured that you’re not going to tear off your your bland external clothing and leap out in full regalia with a hood over your face? If I tear it off, we’ll all be arrested. I didn’t bring I didn’t bring my costume tonight. I’m sorry.

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S1: Oh. Under Stanley and his less heralded collaborators, Marvel clawed its way back by drawing on two principles that would become the foundations of its long term success. The first was that superheroes could have flaws.

S6: The Marvel characters had feet of clay. You could say they were really insecure and neurotic. Spider-Man kind of famously would catch cold and worry about not having any girls interested in him. And so there was a certain relatability to adolescence in seeing that superheroes are just like us. They have to worry about being picked on or where to sit in the cafeteria. And I think that made everything feel fresh.

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S1: Marvel became known for creating superheroes with layers of depth and pathos. They had weaknesses like regular people. They talked like regular people. A 1965 essay in The Village Voice said Marvel made the first comic books that evoked the real world and appealed even to post adolescence.

S6: College kids were reading Marvel Comics and both loving the mild psychedelia of the drawings and also kind of appreciating the slight hipsterism of the banter. And so in I think it was 66, Esquire magazine talked about the Hulk as one of the greatest cultural icons for college students.

S9: It was like somebody had binged on Sartre and then thought, how can I turn this into guys with capes running around and fighting each other?

S1: The second cornerstone of Marvel’s 1960s comeback was the way it wove its many characters together into one storyline, heroes would cross over into each other’s comic books. You’d have to read an Iron Man comic to feel like you fully understood what was going on in a Captain America comic.

S9: That was the beginning of the Marvel Universe, and this was pretty much the beginning of comic books, having these shared universes that have now become bigger than comics. Really, it’s something in all kinds of world building and different media.

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S3: Marvel’s heyday began to fade over time in the 1970s and 80s, Stan Lee tried to expand the Marvel Universe into television and films, but he mostly failed.

S1: There was a terrible Spider-Man TV thing called.

S11: He uses all his fantastic spider powers to battle the most evil forces ever imagined.

S10: There was also a terrible Captain America TV things they ridiculed your father, remember, called him Captain America and finally murdered him. Be Captain America, Steve.

S1: And then came the first major attempt at a Marvel movie. It was executive produced by George Lucas in 1986, fresh off the success of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films. Sounds promising, but this cinematic disaster featuring an oddball Marvel character called Howard the Duck was a total flop.

S10: Is a duck in big trouble?

S12: That’s the Howard, the duck trapped in a world he never made.

S1: But Marvel rebounded again, just as it had in the 1960s, while it found little success on screens, its comic book business was thriving thanks to a new kind of comic book buyer, The Collector. In the 1980s, comic books like Baseball Cards suddenly became investments. The right comic, carefully kept in mint condition inside a plastic sleeve, might be worth a fortune. Speculators bought up special issues like they were IPOs.

S3: Marvel put out more and more series again drawing on its strengths, creating powerful characters and crossing them into each other’s plotlines. Marvel was a hot property that got bought and sold a couple of times in the 1980s. They went public in 1991 as the collector boom was at its peak. And then, as with tulips and Beanie Babies, the comics bubble burst.

S6: Shaun Hill says that with the speculator market gone, many comic book shops closed their doors and many readers left The Hobbit as the excitement fell away when in the mid 90s, the market crashed, comics became more miserable than they had been in the 70s, as miserable as they had been in the 50s after the churches were burning comic books and the Senate was investigating comic books. It really seemed like this time the writing was on the wall for good. It seemed like this is truly the end of comic books as an industry.

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S3: But another Marvel comeback was just around the corner. More on that when we return.

S1: Marvel went bankrupt in 1996, the struggle over corporate control at this point gets confusing, with various entities squabbling over various chunks of the business. In the end, one of the men who emerged on top was a guy named Isaac Perlmutter. He’d been the owner of a toy company that made Marvel action figures here. Shemya Williams, a Marvel fan turned Marvel employee.

S13: He is a very interesting character.

S5: Nobody’s seen him like in a time when, like everyone’s lives are so public. This man has been seen twice. It’s weird.

S1: Isaac Perlmutter is a mysterious man, almost like a comic book villain. He never gives interviews despite helping to lead one of the biggest entertainment companies on Earth, only a handful of photographs of him even exist. One of the only extant photos of Isaac Perlmutter was taken through a window at Mar a Lago, where he’s been known to hang out with his pal Donald Trump during Trump’s administration. Perlmutter even became the controversial quasi shadow director of the Veterans Administration. Shemya says promotors presence around Marvel headquarters disrupted the normally laid back atmosphere when he came to the office.

S5: It was a huge deal and like we had to take everything down from our desks.

S1: Apparently, Charmaine’s Marvel figurines offended Isaac Perlmutter, his eyes, which is weird, given that Perlmutter made a lot of money manufacturing Marvel figurines. You could make a whole podcast just about Isaac Perlmutter. What’s important here is that Perlmutter seized control of Marvel at a time when the company was desperate.

S14: In the 90s, Marvel Entertainment was in such dire straits that they kind of needed money from anywhere.

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S1: Adam B very. As a reporter at Variety, he covers genre entertainment and fandom or in layman’s terms, comic book movies and movies that feel like comic book movies, which is basically every hit movie these days. But it didn’t used to be that way. Adams says that Marvel was reeling after its bankruptcy because lots of people couldn’t see a future for it. It’s comic books business had fallen apart and Marvel had never made a successful film. But a certain slice of people, including Isaac Perlmutter, understood that the company had tremendous potential. Its characters were beloved. They were, in crass terms, valuable intellectual property. A lot of older film executives had watched Marvel vehicles fail and given up on the idea. But the comic book boom of the 1980s and early 1990s inadvertently created a new Hollywood faction.

S14: It wasn’t until also you had a sort of generation of executives who really grew up on comic books coming into the ranks of the boardrooms in the different studios, that you were also able to see a sense of respect for the material and not thinking of it as sort of cheap and easy in a way to make a quick buck with a Happy Meal deal, but not necessarily take it seriously in a way that makes it a sustainable film that people really engage with.

S1: The first stirrings of Marvel’s movie comeback came with the 1998 release of Blade, a modestly successful film about a Marvel character who fights vampires, then came to X-Men, a movie about groups of mutants at war with each other, again based on Marvel comic books. The 2002 Spider-Man movie with Tobey Maguire was a blockbuster hit, but all those movies were made by other companies that license the Marvel characters involved. Marvel realized the real money would only come if it made its own movies using its own intellectual property. But getting the capital to do that would require a gigantic gamble.

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S14: They got a five hundred and twenty five million dollar loan from Merrill Lynch and as collateral, they put up their entire catalog. So they risked their entire catalog of characters, the movie rights to all of those characters on the bet that they would be able to make these movies work. And one of the first characters that they announced they were going to make was Iron Man.

S1: That 2008 film was a true in-house Marvel Studios production, and it was a hit, it was the baby of Marvel executive Kevin Fogie, who is acknowledged as the creative mastermind of the modern Marvel era and who’s taken the reins over the Marvel movie business as Isaac Perlmutter has receded to some extent into the corporate background. He made a few unorthodox choices with Iron Man. He hired an unexpected actor and Robert Downey Jr., whose career had been mired in scandal, and an unexpected director, Jon Favreau, whose previous calling card had been witty comedies. Even the character Iron Man was less well known than other Marvel heroes. It was all a bit risky, and it paid off big, largely because Marvel once again went back to what it does best to the core ingredient that’s enticed new fans again and again.

S14: Since the early 1960s, the whole ethic of Marvel Comics was these are real people who just happen to have superpowers and they sweat and they cry and they bleed just like anybody else. And the Marvel Studios movies have really leaned into that by creating characters who if you kind of cut away the superhero antics of the movies, the underlying stories are very emotionally human scale driven.

S1: Marvel also went back to its other foundational principle that characters could be intertwined and cross over into each other’s storylines, and that by doing this, you create a universe rich and complex enough that fans are drawn in and never want to leave. From the beginning, the new Marvel films were meant to form a massive but cohesive world. In retrospect, this seems like a no brainer for Marvel. But doing it with movies, with their big budgets and long advance planning is a tightrope walk.

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S14: If you’re trying to build a cinematic universe and one or two of your movies flop, one or two of the major threads that you’re trying to weave in here doesn’t work. Then the whole enterprise begins to topple over. But that didn’t happen. Every single one of their movies has been a hit, every single one.

S3: Marvel got bought by Disney for four billion dollars in 2009 after Iron Man came out at the time, it seemed like a lot of money. In retrospect, it was chump change, given the ROIC of Marvel stable of characters, Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, The Avengers, all smashes.

S14: Marvel is the most successful individual franchise in, I think, cinema history. To date, their movies have grossed twenty two billion dollars worldwide.

S3: No other entity has come close to that. Not Harry Potter, James Bond, not Star Wars. Nothing has come close.

S1: Disney has even returned some old Marvel characters to the fold, the rights to valuable properties like X-Men, the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man had all wandered off to other companies. But now Marvel is in control of them again, providing plenty of new fodder for big movie releases for years to come. There are still potential pitfalls for Marvel if movie theaters never fully come back post pandemic. It’s not clear whether the economics of streaming on Disney plus will cover the gargantuan budgets required to make superhero films or the unthinkable could happen. Superheroes could go out of style with Disney plus needing hours and hours of new content to fill the streaming mall. It does seem possible there could eventually be Marvel fatigue. But should Marvel hit any rough spots?

S14: It’s hard to bet against them making a comeback using the same playbook they always have before, so long as I think Marvel Studios is able to maintain that connection with their audience. I think that they’re going to be OK, all other sort of factors aside, because that at the end of the day is why people go back to properties again and again, is because they want to keep following these characters.

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S5: I just think there’s always going to be an appetite for it.

S1: Shemya Williams continues to be a Marvel super fan, but she doesn’t work at the company anymore.

S5: I was the only black full time staff member and that just gets a little hard when there’s no one to relate to.

S15: And then on top of it being mostly men, it was just a lot to handle with every single day. And I didn’t love it.

S1: In the end, the lack of diversity in Marvel staffing has at times been echoed in its movies. For years, Marvel’s movie heroes were overwhelmingly white guys. In twenty eighteen, Marvel released Black Panther, the biggest budget movie ever made with a predominantly black cast. Shemya loved it. She brought her mom to see it and her mom loved it, too. But Shemya says Marvel still has a ways to go when it comes to creating content that speaks to all kinds of fans. She thinks that with the many hours of streaming content coming to Disney plus there will be more room for all sorts of new characters like Marvel announced like 15 shows with the tiniest characters like Miss Marvel, she Hulk.

S5: It’s like all these characters that I don’t think could stand alone in a movie. They’re going to get their own TV shows.

S1: Shemya thinks ultimately Marvel will endure, as it always has before, and she’ll be there watching.

S5: If there was a new Marvel thing every single week, I’d be happy. Even every single day of the week. I would watch it. I’d be there.

S3: That’s our show for today. This episode was produced by Jess Miller and Cleo Levin, editing from Jonathan Fisher Technical Direction from Merritt. Jacob Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast network. Next week on the show, reviving a once great music empire.

S16: You can spend hours in those little steamy recordings you can make out, you can get loaded, obscene things to each other. And the only thing that you had to do eventually was to get out and let somebody else use the booth.

S1: That’s next week on Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism.