For its 75th anniversary, Marvel Comics has put out a magazine touting its 75th anniversary. It’s a business, after all, and you can’t expect a company to honor its past without selling itself in the present. The trick is to do it tastefully.
After an introduction by Editor-In-Chief Axel Alonso, the magazine jumps right into the deep end with the “75 Greatest Marvel Comics of all Time.” But we’re going to leave that until the finish.
What follows is a vague attempt to cover the full 75 years, beginning with The Timely Birth of Marvel by Robert Greenberger, which covers the 1940s and 1950s. Greenberger is a writer who has written Iron Man, Batman, and Star Trek novels as well as edited Comics Scene and Starlog and is well versed in comics history. It’s a quick overview and it pulls its punches a bit but it doesn’t sugarcoat things. For example, Greenberger tells us how Frank Torpey, saleman for Funnies, Inc., approached Martin Goodman with the idea of selling comic book, only to have Goodman hire the artists right away from him. He also details the 1957 Implosion in which Goodman was forced to make a bad deal with Independent News, distributor of DC Comics, after unwisely folding his own distribution company. Interestingly, this, plus the coming of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Don Heck, was a great shaper of what became Marvel Comics. There are also plenty of quotes from Stan Lee here. My favorite is Stan’s reflection on how young he was when his “Uncle” Martin made him an editor. (Stan was the son of Goodman’s wife’s cousin.) “There was a time I was in reception when an artist came in, an older man in his late 40s. I was about 18 at the time, and he walked in and said, ‘Hey, kid, I’d like to see Mr. Lee.’ I knew he’d be embarrassed to see it was me. I asked him to wait for a minute. I didn’t know how to handle it. I think I said he was busy at the time.”
There are plenty more Stan quotes in Stan Lee, The 75th Anniversary Interview which stands in for an article on the 1960s. Interviewer John Rhett Thomas sometimes talks too much (“Well, one of the important elements of a great novel – or any piece of literature that stands the test of time – is characterization that readers can learn something from, and perhaps identify with and adapt into their own life. When you boil it down…” etc, etc, etc.) but he gets some nice nuggets from Stan. I particularly like the talk about Stan playing the ocarina in the office and how, if he hadn’t been a comic book writer, “I’d love to have been a used car salesman.” Stan speaks a bit about Ditko but not really about Kirby. With Kirby gone and Ditko reclusive, it sadly limits the dialogue on this pivotal Marvel period.
An interview with Walt Simonson stands in for the 1970s and 1980s. Simonson is one of the most important Marvel creators of the period but to have Thor stand in for two decades does a disservice to all the other creators and characters of the time. The 1990s to the present are represented by Event Horizon, The Crossovers That Defined the Marvel Universe!, featuring a list of mostly awful, mostly annual crossover events. That this is what Marvel presently chooses to spotlight says a lot, not much of it good. Today we are overrun by mostly awful, mostly more than annual crossover events. They aren’t worth reading but they sell like hotcakes.
The rest of the articles, spotlighting Marvel today, also speak volumes. After the “2014 Young Guns” feature (which highlights 6 new artists, only one of whom was born in the United States, demonstrating the globalization of Marvel super-heroes), are articles on toys, digital comics and the Marvel movies. But the last page is a full-page reproduction of Marvel Comics #1, October 1939, lest you forget what we’re celebrating. A nice touch.
But now back to those “75 Greatest Marvels” that are, we are told, “Chosen By You!” I’m all for fans voting. You’ve got to have fans voting. But fan voting is how you get things like Avengers vs. X-Men #0-12 at #33, Maximum Carnage at #27, Secret Wars at #11 and Civil War at (amazingly) #2. At least Civil War is compelling. The other three are embarrassments. The truth is that issues like Giant-Size X-Men #1 and Incredible Hulk #181 are also mediocre comic books, only highly regarded in retrospect. The same could be said for the various #1s included here. Are Hulk #1, FF #1, Avengers #1, Captain America Comics #1, really great comics or are they stand-ins for the later great comics from each series? That’s fine, I suppose, but if you want to get a friend interested in the Hulk, would you recommend Hulk #1 or #181? Or would you recommended the fast-paced, cliff-hanging run of stories from Tales to Astonish,? Does this list provide a service or disservice to fans seeking Marvel’s best stories?
For that matter, is it even really chosen by fans? There’s far too much recent stuff in this list, which might be easier to sell to fans looking to jump on. Granted I’m biased but I could nearly fill this list with 1960s Marvels alone. And what is with the huge amount of issues crammed into one listing? It’s bad enough to list Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. #1-12 as “one” comic. That can (sort of) be justified because it was collected in a single trade paperback. But some of these don’t even fit into one collection. To say that the long run of Chris Claremont’s New Mutants is one issue is ridiculous. It takes seven TPBs to contain it all. But this brings us back to the real reason for this list and this magazine. To sell product. All of these choices are available in some collection. In some cases, more than one. Why promote one issue when you can promote seven volumes?
For the record, Spidey appears at #75 (The Death of Spider-Man from Ultimate Spider-Man #156-160), #68 (Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21), #65 The Clone Saga, yes the whole Clone Saga), #57 (Amazing Spider-Man #129), #46 (Amazing Spider-Man #700), #44 (Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 2) #36, #43 (Amazing Spider-Man #50, yes, one of the greatest Spidey issues of all time is only #43. There are 42 “issues” ahead of it, including, astoundingly, Maximum Carnage.), #35 (Amazing Spider-Man #31-33, which also has a lower rating than Maximum Carnage), #28 (Spider-Man: Blue #1-6), #27 (Maximum Carnage), #17 (“The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man” from Amazing Spider-Man #248), #10 (Amazing Fantasy #15), #3 (Kraven’s Last Hunt) and #1 (The Death of Gwen Stacy from Amazing Spider-Man #121-122). A fitting #1 to this list for, although, it is far from the best comic Marvel has published, it combines the preference for event over substance with the rise of the movie universes which, let’s face it, have become the real Marvel to most people these days.
So, what’s the verdict? It’s tasteful enough and it makes at least an effort to honor the whole 75 years but there’s too much product here. I respect the need to keep selling and I know this magazine is more promotion than history but we still need more than this. It’s the “75 Greatest” that really sinks it for me. Cool Alex Ross variant covers, though.