After 70 years, Marvel has contributed immensely to the comics industry.
As we know, Marvel has been alive and kicking for 70 years now. In the entertainment world, that’s a hell of a long time. In those 70 years, Marvel as a company has given us many great character moments and storylines that have made us come back for more, time after time. Of course, they’ve also done things that have made fanboys swear to never pick up a Marvel branded book again (Brand New Day, anyone?), but luckily, comic book fans are a cowardly lot and almost always eat their words with the next big awe-inspiring event the publisher dishes out.
We’re here to celebrate Marvel and their contribution to comics, in regards to the characters themselves, but also – and more importantly – their advancement of the medium we all so graciously adore, Wednesday after Wednesday. Happy 70th Marvel, and though we may not have always been on loving terms, I’ll be damned if I don’t think of you as family.
10. Captain America Kicks It
Nearly every major superhero has "died" at one time or another, and as convoluted and, for lack of a better term, "comic-booky" their deaths and subsequent returns are, the general public is still endlessly fascinated by the fictional deaths of literary icons. Before the death of Cap, the most hyped death and return story was Superman’s in the early 1990’s, which wound up being a catalyst for the 90’s comic boom.
However, Captain America, who may not be in the same tier of American symbolism as Superman (ironic, considering Superman isn’t human), nonetheless proved a superhero death could still be impactful even when readers knew he’d be returning at some time or another. What made it such a success isn’t so much in the event itself as it was the lead up. Following Civil War, Cap was essentially made an enemy of the state by his former ally Iron Man, and what followed was pretty much a fall from grace for Steve Rogers in the eyes of the American public.
For such a patriotic old soul who had literally given his body to his country, to be shot while in the custody of his own government for treason, is a tragically ironic end. Of course, thanks to his death, Bucky Barnes got to take center stage for a while and brand new stories got to be told. And don’t worry, good ol’ boy Steve Rogers is on his way back as you read this.
9. Gwen Stacy Kicks It
Though Gwen’s death came over ten years after Peter Parker’s origins as Spider-Man were published, her death is one of the most important aspects of the Spidey we’ve come to know and love today. At the time, killing off a main character’s girlfriend was something new, and honestly, quite vicious. However, what made Gwen Stacy’s death so important to Peter’s character is the way in which the events went down.
The long standing controversy, both to readers and the characters that experienced them, is the actual cause of Gwen’s death. Yes, Green Goblin kidnapped her and tossed her off the George Washington Bridge (or Brooklyn Bridge, depending), and Spider-Man webbed her in reaction, saving her from becoming road kill on the street below, but unfortunately, not saving her from death. Gwen was dead before she would have hit the ground, and that’s where the controversy enters. Was it the shock of the fall that killed her? Did Peter overcompensate with his webs and accidentally snap her neck from whiplash?
Peter being Peter, he constantly questions his role in his girlfriend’s death, which ultimately adds to the humanity of Spider-Man’s character in general. Even though Green Goblin himself tells Peter that she was dead before he webbed her, Peter is still a diffident teenage kid that constantly second guesses himself. Gwen dying only amplified that feeling, and in a sick way, made Spider-Man even more relatable as a character.
8. Civil War
It can be difficult to look back upon a large scale comic book "event" like Civil War and remember how exciting, and dare I say it, original it was at the time. Difficult because, often times publishers like to render their status-quo changing books relatively obsolete in the months following their conclusions. Such was the case with Marvel’s Civil War, which was the first event in a long time that I witnessed long-idle readers eager to snatch up and read.
Civil War saw the Marvel superhero community have a crucial split in their philosophies after a group of inexperienced heroes accidentally destroy an entire school of children. There are those who wish to enforce a Superhero Registration Act – led by Iron Man and SHIELD – and those who oppose it, believing it goes against their rights as an America, like Captain America. What followed was a truly heart-wrenching and politically-savvy tale that was educated, well plotted, and significantly more thematic than the average summer comic book reading. It saw a hefty Iron Man heel turn, Peter Parker unmasking to the world, and Cap becoming a fugitive on the run.
Though all of these things would in some way be either diluted or all together reversed in the months following, as a stand alone moment in time, Civil War is really a work of genius on Marvel’s part.
7. Marvel Gives Birth to the Ultimate Universe
Comic book publishers have always had out-of-continuity stories, as well as stories that existed in some sort of alternate existence. Most of the time, these were one-shots or story arcs within the main universe in which the characters we know and love met alternate versions of themselves, or something along those lines. Hell, DC Comics even constructed a line-wide event in Crisis on Infinite Earths to help organize the madness its continuity had become. However, in 2000, Marvel opted for something else entirely.
Marvel’s Ultimate imprint gave them a chance to both "reboot" and modernize their classic heroes, starting first with Ultimate Spider-Man, and soon moving to X-Men, Fantastic Four, and The Ultimates, a version of The Avengers. Many characters were reverted to a younger age and given a more "modern" origin, presumably in an effort to gain new, younger readership. The goal was to create a new timeline without the hassles of complicated continuity, and it was a runaway success. Though it eventually created it’s own continuity strands, the Ultimate line allowed top creators to give their own fresh spins on established characters without having to worry too much about staying true to Marvel’s original continuity.
More recently, there was a massive event in the Ultimate universe that ultimately (lol) resulted in the entire imprint being relaunched under the new Ultimate Comics banner.
6. Daredevil Unmasked
Though Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s entire four year run on Daredevil is to be acclaimed in its own right, it was their decision to out Matt Murdock’s identity as Daredevil to the public that stands out as a benchmark moment for both the character and Marvel as a company. Though Frank Miller had previously revealed Daredevil’s identity to a select few characters back in the classic "Born Again" story arc, it was "Out" that brought his identity to the masses and opened up a whole new arena of storytelling.
With Matt in the public eye as both a top level attorney and a vigilante, Bendis and Maleev were able to craft one of, if not THE best superhero saga in the history of the funny books. From this point forward, Murdock’s life essentially became one never-ending downward spiral of misery, and of course, like watching a train wreck, we just couldn’t look away.
Though the secret identity issue would later be left in question for the general public (is he or is he not the vigilante known as Daredevil?), the contribution his ousting made to the character is irreversible, offering up one of the most interesting and unique superheros currently active in comics today. Better yet, Marvel didn’t feel the need to retract his unmasking like they did with Peter Parker, so it seems like Daredevil’s personal woes are here to stay.
5. Creation of Marvel Studios
Believe it or not, there was a time when comic book movies weren’t all that in vogue. Before Marvel Studios helped bring Blade and X-Men to the big screen in 1998 and 2000 respectively, the last unanimously well-received comic book films were 1989’s Batman and Superman: The Movie from way back in 1978. One good superhero movie every decade isn’t exactly a good track record. However, by forming their own studio and helping to produce the films based on their characters, Marvel ensured – for the most part – that the movie studios couldn’t bastardize their properties.
Starting with the aforementioned films, the coming of the age of the movies-based-on-a-comic era was solidified with 2002’s Spider-Man, and has not slowed down since. As their co-productions gained steam, Marvel eventually were able to begin producing their movies independently, starting with Iron Man last year, which was distributed by Paramount. Producing independently means no studio interference that could have potentially resulted in some sort of misstep in the characters, much like what seemed to happen on the productions of Daredevil, X3, and Fantastic Four.
Though the Marvel Studios produced The Incredible Hulk wasn’t quite as successful as Iron Man, it did allow Marvel to begin building their cohesive filmic universe where characters will begin to bleed over into each others movies, rather than seemingly existing in their own universes. Admittedly, there are more cringe-inducing films based on Marvel properties than there are enjoyable ones, but their structure is something that will surely pay off in the future.
Oh, unless Disney f*cks that up.
4. Astonishing X-Men
I tried my best to pick out one particular moment that occurred during Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s run on Astonishing X-Men. I really did, honest. But the truth is, their entire run is really just one, long amazing moment in Marvel history. Every issue is a perfect ten, and as I’ve said countless times before, is the end of the line as far as X-Men stories go.
Giving Whedon and Cassaday the go-ahead to craft a tale that was technically in continuity but unrestrained by all the Claremont garbage that had come to define the property, Marvel gave X-fans a fresh tale with pitch-perfect characterizations that they didn’t have to read a thousand tie-in titles to reap the benefits of. It was like restarting the team in the Ultimate line, except it held the familiarity of all the classic elements.
Though it lasted not nearly long enough, the original run of Astonishing X-Men is truly the pinnacle of X-Men storytelling, and I doubt it will ever be topped.
3. Demon in a Bottle
The meat and potatoes of the legacy Marvel has left behind comes in the form of stories that not only have affected their characters, but the way that mainstream superhero comics are able to tell stories. "Demon in a Bottle" is the iconic storyline that sees Tony Stark, Iron Man, collapse into his alcoholism. The story is significant not only because of the contribution to the Stark character, but more for the assertion that these larger than life heroes can have real-life debilitating faults.
Yes, characters always have flaws; they need them. But for a superhero, being an alcoholic – and hurting people as a result – was a step in a new direction. Though it was not the first drug addiction story in comics, it was the first that showcased an A-level, high sales character descending into addiction. I’m of the opinion that "Demon in a Bottle" really set the stage for the new era of comic books that ushered in darker and more disturbing looks at otherwise heroic characters throughout the 1980’s, a trend that still continues today.
It’s not that comics should constantly move to a darker place, but having heroes with realistic problems and addictions just make the stories that much more human.
2. Northstar Comes Out
It’s remarkable how far we’ve come in terms of openly gay characters in various mediums, but none moreso than comics. For a long time, the shameful reign of terror that the Comics Code Authority held over the comic book industry not only banned things like vampires, werewolves, and drugs, but also homosexual activity. Who knew that human beings were on the same level as horrifying creatures of the night?
Though created in the early 1980’s, Northstar was not "allowed" to be openly gay until Alpha Flight #106 in 1992. Before that, there were only subtle hints at Northstar’s sexual orientation, including a storyline which was originally intended for him to die from AIDS, though the outcome was later changed and the AIDS angle was eliminated all together. Even after his coming out, that aspect of Northstar’s character was scarcely made mention of until he reappeared in the main X-books in the early 2000’s.
Regardless, Northstar’s coming out is a benchmark moment in mainstream superhero comics and should be seen as a success for gay and lesbian rights. Though there is still a long way to go, there are quite a few more sexually diverse characters in today’s comic book worlds, including Batwoman, who is currently the main feature on one of DC Comics’ longest running series, Detective Comics.
1. Stan Lee and Martin Goodman Tell the Comics Code Authority to Blow
The Comics Code Authority still exists today. But thank heavens, it’s hardly the "authority" anymore. In fact, Marvel withdrew from CCA membership back in 2001, opting instead for their own ratings system that they have used ever since. With the boom of comic book stores that cropped up in the 1990’s, having approval from the CCA sort of became a moot point, with many publishers avoiding it all together. However, back in 1971, the CCA meant much more, and Stan Lee along with Marvel publisher Martin Goodman stuck it to the man with their defying publication of the CCA unapproved Amazing Spider-Man anti-drug arc that ran in issues #96-98.
The United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare requested that Stan Lee write a story promoting the negative effects of drug use, and he obliged by doing a story depicting Harry Osborne abusing LSD. At the time, among its other ridiculous guidelines, the CCA did not allow any sort of reference to drugs in any fashion, even if the story was decidedly anti-drug. So when the issues did not get approval, Marvel decided to take a stand and publish the story anyway, in one of the most badass publisher moments ever.
You have to understand that at the time, the CCA approval was a big deal. So when the story arc was well received and sold well, the first proverbial nail in the coffin of the CCA was in place, and the Code would be revised to allow negative portrayals of narcotics, which eventually led to other revisions.
Thankfully, in today’s world of comics and their accessibility, the Code is an archaic mode of censorship that nobody really pays attention to anymore. Not only that, but the telling of such a harrowing tale of drug abuse paved the way for later classic tales like the previously mentioned "Demon in a Bottle" and "Snowbirds Don’t Fly" from DC’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow, all of which pushed the boundaries of mainstream comics for the better.