Superheroic: 14 Things You Didn’t Know About Marvel Comics
Although they have been around since 1939, Marvel Comics have been incredibly popular over the last decade or so. While the comic books and paraphernalia businesses are booming, Marvel has also been enriched by a stable of billion-dollar movie franchises, including Iron Man, Thor and the Avengers. Purchased by Disney in 2009 for $4.2 billion, Marvel has become a cultural behemoth. And there’s a lot of history in the long and storied life of the little comic book company that eventually struck it rich. Here are some parts of the story you might not already know.
1. Marvel’s Founder Almost went Up in Flames
There are several stories, some apocryphal, that describe how Marvel should never have happened. The most persistent is that founder Martin Goodman almost wasn’t around to start the company that became Marvel. Two years before he started Timely Publications (which later became Marvel) in 1939, pulp fiction publisher Goodman and his new wife booked a European vacation on the Hindenburg zeppelin — the same flight that ended in a fiery disaster. But since they couldn’t get two seats together, they got a refund and took a plane instead.
2. Marvel’s First Superheroes are Almost Unrecognizable Now
The first Marvel comic, cover date October 1939, featured the Human Torch, an android (so not a human) who shared the same name but little else with the much-later Johnny Storm; Angel, a private detective who worked in costume; Namor the Sub-Mariner, a half-human, half-Atlantean who had superhero strength, but an antihero sensibility; a cowboy hero called the Masked Raider; an unnervingly Tarzan-like character called Ka-Zar the Great, some gag cartoons and a story about auto racing. Of them, only Namor still survives. The issue was a huge success. All 80,000 printed sold immediately. Goodman then reprinted the issue identically except with a November 1939 cover date, and sold 800,000 of them.
3. Marvel is as New York as it Gets
Ever notice how most Marvel stories are set in or around New York City? Well, in its 75-year history, Marvel has never called anywhere else home. The company has had eight different headquarters, and all of them are within walking distance in midtown Manhattan. It started at the McGraw-Hill building at 42nd and Tenth, then moved to Suite 1401 of the Empire State Building. From there it moved to 635 Madison Avenue, although the address in the comic books mistakenly printed it as 625 Madison, which sent a lot of comic book-related mail to Revlon. It then moved to 575 Madison, downtown to 387 park Avenue, back uptown to 10 East 40th Street, then to 417 Fifth Avenue and finally to 135 West 50th Street. It shares the building with Entertainment Weekly, among other publications.
4. Marvel Hasn’t Always Been a Hollywood Powerhouse
With both Marvel’s The Avengers and Iron Man 3 each grossing more than a billion at the box office, it’s hard to believe that Stan Lee spent much of the 70s and 80s begging companies to make Saturday morning cartoons and Thor and his dog (and failing). In fact, until 1998, Marvel’s forays into film were mostly failures. The first, a 1944 production of Captain America, received decent reviews, but the movie had little in common with the comic book. And its star, noticeably overweight Dick Purcell, died of a heart attack shortly after filming. A mere 42 years later, Marvel returned with the atrocious Howard the Duck, which lost millions of dollars and tons of credibility for everyone involved. Then in 1989, they made a low-budget failure in The Punisher, and an unfortunate direct-to-video American-Yugoslav production of Captain America in 1990. Then there was a 1994 attempt at The Fantastic 4, which didn’t even make it to video. Finally in 1998, Blade, starring Wesley Snipes, ended Marvel’s losing streak.
5. The Marvel and DC Universes Collided and Produced Amalgam
Marvel and DC Comics might be rivals, but they are hardly enemies. The two companies have worked together several times, most notably with the 1990s imprint Amalgam, which included both companies’ characters melded together. For example, Marvel’s Wolverine (human name Logan) and DC’s Batman (Bruce Wayne) were combined to form the Amalgam character Dark Claw (Logan Wayne). Each company produced an equal number of issues. To facilitate the Amalgam characters, elaborate back stories and fictional reboots were created.
6. Marvel is Open to Celebrity Appearances
After finding out that President-elect Barack Obama was a Marvel fan, the company featured him in a cameo in 2008. Later, rapper Eminem became an actual Marvel character with “above average human intelligence” to go along with his “shooting skills.” Other historical and cultural figures portrayed in Marvel comics include Adolph Hitler (who gets punched out by Captain America), Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Rasputin, Queen Elizabeths I and II, Winston Churchill, Saddam Hussein, Nelson Mandela, Elvis Presley, Kim Basinger, Oprah Winfrey and, of course, Hulk Hogan.
7. Marvel has a Comic Dedicated to the Guys who Clean Up after their Superheroes
Damage Control is a company in the Marvel universe whose primary task is to fix the messes Marvel superheroes leave in their path. Formed by Ann-Marie Hoag and bankrolled by Tony “Iron Man” Stark and Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk, the company made a few cameo appearances before gaining its own comic book. Eventually, Stark and Fisk realized they couldn’t coexist as investors, and Hoag borrowed enough cash from Nick Fury to buy them out. That’s proof that not every storyline Marvel has made is all that interesting.
8. Michael Jackson Tried to Buy Marvel So He Could Get His Hands on Spider-Man
Pop star Michael Jackson was a huge comic book fan who collected tons of books, costumes and paraphernalia. And in the 1990s he met with Stan Lee and others for the express purpose of buying Marvel. In fact, Lee recalls that Jackson, with whom he became friends, asked him: “If I buy Marvel, you’ll help me run it, won’t you?” The deal never made it beyond the meeting stage, but it has been widely speculated that the reason Jackson wanted Marvel was to own the rights to the Spider-Man characters so that he could play him in a feature film.
9. Nick Fury Was Designed to Look Like Samuel L Jackson Without His Permission
Marvel so wanted Samuel L Jackson to play Nick Fury in film versions of the Avengers series that they styled the character to look and act like the popular movie star. But the problem was that they didn’t ask him first. As Jackson later told a reporter: “It was kind of weird. I just happened to be in a comic store, and I picked up the comic because I saw my face. And I was like: Wait a minute, I’m not sure I remember giving somebody permission to use my image.” He contacted Marvel and they admitted they had done it in an effort to get him to be in their movies. Jackson, a sincerely reasonable guy, was flattered and instead of suing, he started talking contract.
10. The Avengers Have Superhero Pets
The Pet Avengers is a comic book series based on the adventures of the pets of the Avengers. Founded by the Fantastic 4’s dog Lockjaw (stay with me), the team consists of other heroes’ pets who usually have similar abilities. Among them are Throg, Thor’s frog; Lockheed, Kitty Pryde’s dragon; Redwing, Falcon’s hawk; Speedball’s cat Hairball; and Barack Obama’s dog, Bo. Not surprisingly, their adventures are often played for laughs.
11. The Punisher Killed the Entire Marvel Universe, Including Himself
Contrary to popular belief, superheroes die all the time. In a 1995 one-off, Marvel had the Punisher kill the entire Marvel Universe in a comic called “The Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe.” It’s not a great comic by any means, but it does satisfy what its title promises. With almost no hype on release, it failed to take off, but has become something of a collectible since.
12. Stan Lee Has Sued Marvel Several Times
Stan Lee might be the public face of Marvel, but their relationship has not always been smooth. In fact, he has sued the company, through his own company Stan Lee Media, several times over profits and ownership of characters. In 2013, a federal judge put down the gavel on the matter, awarding the characters to Disney, who had bought Marvel in 2009.
13. Marvel Created Blue Ear comic to Convince a Kid to Wear his Hearing Aid
When Christina D’Allesandro’s son 4-year-old son Anthony Smith refused to wear his hearing aid “because superheroes don’t wear blue ears,” she got in contact with Marvel. Moved, Marvel created a kid character named Blue Ear who wears a hearing aid and whose catchphrase is “Thanks to my listening device I hear someone in trouble!” they sent Anthony some drawings of Blue Ear and some comics in which Hawkeye loses most of his hearing. The kid started wearing his hearing aid with pride after that.
14. Marvel Bought the Idea for Venom from a Fan for $220
Back in 1982, Marvel asked fans to come up with ideas. A guy from Indiana named Randy Schueller came up with the idea of an upgraded black Spider-Man outfit that gave him special powers. Marvel liked the idea so much, they gave him $220 and a chance to co-write the back story. The writing part didn’t work out, but the black suit later became Venom, one of Marvel’s most enduring and popular characters.