Some of Origins of Marvel (and Other) Comics

In all the versions of it, no one missed him.

–Thomas Lynch, “Michael’s Reply to the White Man

In which I contribute more to The Valve’s Reading Comics symposium than mere linkage. But first, more mere linkage, to playwright Justin Grote’s appreciation of the book. I want to add megadittoes to his praise of the book, particularly the section where he explains how, “The genius of Reading Comics is that it combines the best of both [the fannish and formal critical] traditions.” (Not so much for his assertion that SF fandom “began to emerge” in the 1960s.) I mention how much I agree with this part now because, in the way of things, I’ll be spending a couple items on places where I disagree. So let’s get to it.

The medium of comics has a Myth of the Fall that RC touches on, and that one finds elsewhere among critics, advocates and certain practitioners, and goes something like this:

Once upon a time, the comic-book industry offered a stupefying variety of material. From the late 1930s through the late 1960s you could buy monster comics, romance comics, humor comics, crime comics, horror comics, and, yes, superhero comics. Alas, as the 1970s turned to the 1980s, the two major corporate publishers, Marvel and DC, turned their backs on the general audience – especially children – to saturate the emerging (adult) fan market flocking to comics specialty stores, and since the fan market wanted superheroes and more superheroes, that’s what the Big Two, and a remora-school of wannabes, gave them. As a result, circulations plummeted, the mass audience tuned out, and “pop” comic books lost their general-issue appeal, becoming the preoccupation of a dwindling audience of aging fanboys. Only once the independent comics (aka “comix”) movement gathered steam from the late 1980s to early in the new millenium did at least a portion of the industry dare to provide the variety of sequential-art narratives that would appeal to a large audience.

This myth is very nearly completely backwards.

[More below the fold…]

When I think of the 1970s, I think of the major comics publishers trying like hell to stay viable in the general-interest market and failing. The long-term trends in comic-book circulation. from the 1940s to the 2000s, move almost inexorably downward, except for a speculator-driven bubble for a few years around 1990. According to Wikipedia, Ben Morse of Wizard Magazine believed, based on his research, that the top-selling comic book of the early 1940s was probably Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, and it moved around 1.4 million copies a month. Many comics had circulations of over a million per month, including most of Disney’s line, and Dell’s licensed properties like Tarzan and Roy Rogers. Timely’s Captain America shifted nearly a million copies a month, and monthly Archie circulations seem to have been in the high six or low seven figures. The Kefauver/Wertham witch-hunt of the mid-1950s certainly crippled the industry, though apparently their biggest victim, William Gaines’s EC line, mostly sold in the hundreds of thousands rather than millions per issue.

in 1960 there were still two titles selling a million copies a month, both from Disney, according to Statement-of-Ownership data compiled by The Comics Chronicles site. Superman, Superboy and Batman had circulations between a half-million and 850K. The “average” circulation in 1960 by CC’s calculation was ~316,000. Per the SoO data for the rest of the 1960s, that was the last year any newsstand comic sold more than a million copies. The Adam West-driven Batman craze of 1966 and 1967 made Batman the top comic of those years, but it didn’t crack 900,000 in sales. By 1969, the top two comics, Archie and Superman, barely break the half-million-copy mark per issue, and the average circulation is about a quarter million.

In the 1970s, Marvel Comics tried publishing sword & sorcery titles (licensed from the estate of Robert E. Howard), monster titles (Wolk offers a lengthy appreciation of the Marv Wolfman/Gene Colan Tomb of Dracula in Reading Comics), war comics (Combat Kelly seems to have failed in 1972, jungle adventure (Shanna the She-Devil sputtered out after two attempts), even Romance – Millie the Model lasted until 1973. DC tried science fiction (Kamandi), horror (House of Mystery and House of Secrets), war (as late as 1979 they debuted All-Out War, which appears to have lasted six issues. Marvel tried an entire line of black & white full-trim magazines, tending towards horror and science fiction.

None of it worked, except – sort of – the superheroes.

Wolk tells some of the story, and you can pick some of the rest of it up elsewhere. The newsstand channel collapsed in the 1970s, and not because of superheroes – Archie, Gold Key and Harvey comics continued to be available to distributors; at least, the ones the publishers didn’t cancel continued to be available. Newsstand distributors and retailers gave up on comics because the low price points made them unprofitable compared to other things they could be selling – one reason Marvel tried to become a magazine publisher. The comic-book industry fled to the direct market just ahead of a cave-in. They took refuge in superhero comics because nothing else worked.

So the Myth of the Fall gets the causality wrong. But it also raises a question it doesn’t bother to answer: why is it that only the superhero story remained (somewhat) commercially viable as the industry transitioned to the direct-market era. In theory, the industry might have dwindled to a core of aging romance-comics fans, or monster-comics aficionados rather than superhero geeks like me. What magic power did the likes of us hold that – let’s face it – soulless corporations chose to chase our dollars rather than those of other slices of consumerdom? Why did the superhero pamphlet-sized comic die more slowly than other genres?

I think it’s because superheroes really did remain comic books’ competitive advantage: they were the kind of genre story that comics could tell effectively that other media couldn’t. Romance readers enjoyed the rise of Harlequin and Silhouette. Milporn enthusiasts could buy Mac Bolan paperbacks, at least until they stopped reading. Horror fans had numerous low-budget movies that delivered the various kinds of fright kicks more effectively than could drawings on newsprint. If you wanted war stories, you could get them from movies, books or TV. But until recently, other media couldn’t or wouldn’t provide superhero entertainment as well as the comic-book medium could. It’s not that there were no TV shows, no cartoons or no movies. It’s just that, for the aficionado of superheroes, there weren’t enough of them, and many of the ones that did exist didn’t measure up. They had lousy effects or reeked of condescension or embarrassment. I watched the first Richard Donner Superman movie a couple years ago. Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve turn in wonderful performances. But much of the movie is downright insulting to – people who love Superman. And the effects are pretty awful. Supposedly “You’ll believe a man can fly,” but without making his cape lift off the backs of his thighs. The water in the dam-break scene defeats the modelers – the drop sizes break the illusion. The script is deliberately cornball, and when you come down to it, the plot doesn’t compel. Even otherwise very good efforts like the two Tim Burton Batman films betray moments of embarrassment on the part of the creators. Say what you will about the ex-fans and Asperger’s cases the Big Two hired to fill the direct-market with superhero books from the early 1980s on: they didn’t spend half their time winking at you.

The assertion that there is or was some “natural” fit between the comic-book medium and superheroes hovers over the preceding, and such assertions make art-comics and manga partisans roll eyes. So let’s be clear: sequential art can and should be about lots of things. As Wolk suggests in Reading Comics, graphic romances aren’t just thwarted chick flicks; illustrated memoirs aren’t just ways to tell the story of your life in fewer words. The way that Daniel Clowes uses the conventions of the Sunday newspaper strip to structure Ice Haven results in a reading experience unique to the medium. You literally couldn’t have that story, in the proper sense of the term, in another medium.

But. The monthly pamphlet comic could fulfill the conventions of the superhero story more successfully than the same format could fulfill other genres, relative to the other options available at the time (the couple decades beginning in the late 1970s). As Wolk notes, art-comics creators have been abandoning the pamphlet comic as un-economical and esthetically restrictive. It’s becoming a book form rather than a magazine one. Manga has settled on the digest-sized, $10 paperback with hundreds of black and white pages: profitable to retailers;affordable to fans; portable; offering hours of value. And, really, still, more people watch TV.

We’re also reaching the point where the superhero story itself is in the process of finding new homes. Some of the best work in the genre in the last 20 years has appeared outside of comics itself: the “Timmverse” cartoons based on DC Comics properties; about half of the “Marvel movies” that have come out in the last decade; various prestige-format books. We’re starting to see some seriously intended prose novels too, as opposed to novelizations of existing properties. For good and ill, the pamphlets have become chiefly a means to amortize the costs of producing the paperback collections that will eventually hold them, and which are increasingly crucial to the business plans of the superhero comics publishers. The superhero comic didn’t kill the rest of the industry back at the dawn of comics fandom, but the things that did kill the rest of the market may yet kill superhero comics.

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