The Secret History of Marvel

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Stories October 28, 2019 The Secret History of Marvel

“Fun is not something one considers when reading a blog article, but I must admit, this brings a smile to my face.” —Thanos on Museum Hack, probably

Just a few days ago, the Marvel hit Avengers: Infinity War began an intense campaign to become the most successful opening movie in history. Sorry, Star Wars, but you’ll have to move aside.

Marvel Movies: A quick history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Over the past 10 years and 18 films, the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) has brought beloved Marvel comics characters to the big screen and introduced some more obscure characters (cough Hawkeye, cough Ant Man) to a larger audience. These movies have dramatically changed the game for big-budget storytelling, with every studio champing at the bit to try to turn their next movie into the start of a shared universe franchise. There was even a college class at the University of Baltimore taught about the impact of the MCU on cinema. Pretty crazy, right?

Even though it seems we’ve been watching after-after-credit teaser seasons and googling obscure Guardians of the Galaxy references, it wasn’t always a foregone conclusion that the MCU would become a cultural touchstone. The real story of how we got here is full of just as many twists and turns as all the summer blockbusters we know and love.

Marvel has left a huge impact on pop culture by bringing something that was considered “low art” to the center stage. So grab some popcorn and settle in for the real story of Marvel Comics.

Who’s Moe Goodman, legend behind Marvel comics characters?

Moe Goodman is the reason we’re even talking about Marvel and Avengers and Thanos in the first place. Born the youngest child of a family of 13, Moe would go on to found the company that would one day become Marvel Comics.

Moe wasn’t really the creative type nor did he particularly care about the content he was producing. What mattered to him was creating content that was popular and sellable.

Moe started out as a publisher of pulp magazines in the 1930s, specializing in Westerns because they were what was “in” at the moment. In 1939, Moe got married and went for a brief overseas honeymoon in Europe and returned to an America obsessed with the comic book. Moe saw this as a great market to tap into and decided to found Timely Comics.

Timely’s first issue was Marvel Comics Number One, featuring the Human Torch. The comic proved to be massively popular and ended up selling out of its original run of 800,000 copies and then a secondary reprinting of 800,000 more. With this success under his belt, Moe started to assemble a larger staff in order to produce more content and get the ball rolling with other now-infamous characters, like Captain America.

Except Marvel Comics almost never happened

Cut back to Europe, when Moe and his wife are waiting in line for the blimp ride they are going to take back home. Moe and his wife are a little snobby and, when they weren’t able to sit next to each other, decide to forgo the whole blimp thing and take a plane home instead.

Fortunately for them, this decision saved both their lives.

The blimp they didn’t take was none other than the Hindenburg.


If Moe and his wife hadn’t been set on sitting together, this whole crazy Marvel movie franchise might never have been. There would be no Captain America, no Deadpool, no X-Men, Fantastic Four, no Spiderman, no way to spend your hard-earned cash on a hot summer night.

Except maybe Marvel movies would have existed anyway? 

Good ole Moe wasn’t particularly considerate of intellectual property or creative integrity.

Making comics wasn’t really an art to him, it was a business. Business meant keeping up with the times. So Moe had his staff copy whatever was popular at the moment, including ideas from other rival publications such as DC comics, which had been in the game since 1932. Moe ran his publishing company under lots of different titles and branches, so if someone wanted to sue it him for copyright infringement, it didn’t really affect the overall profit he was making.

So even if Moe had met his untimely end aboard the Hindenburg, there’s a chance that at least some of your beloved Marvel Characters might still exist in some form or the other. Kind of like an alternate reality. We’ve seen Doctor Strange, we know alternate realities exist.

The Real Master of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Though Moe was instrumental in setting up Marvel, the company as we know it wouldn’t really exist without the one, the only Stan Lee.

The master of a thousand cameos and the creator of many classic characters, Lee’s name means something to people who aren’t even comic book fans. Lee is the comic book nerd. But Stan Lee might not have been so famous if he hadn’t received an introduction into the comic business from his cousin Jean, who was none other than the wife of Moe Goodman.


Goodman hired Lee as an editor at Marvel Comics when Lee was just nineteen. The previous editor, the legendary Jack Kirby, left to work for DC due to “creative differences” with Goodman. Lee quickly showed a knack for business and a wonderful imagination for storytelling.

Except this also almost wasn’t the case for the Marvel Universe

During the 1950s and 60s, the superhero genre in comics had lost a lot of its punch with readers, who were now more interested in reading horror comics than about flawless archetypal heroes who wear their underwear on the outside.

It also didn’t help that the nation still had WWII fresh on its mind. The morally black and white tales of superheroes were a bit hard to swallow.

Lee wasn’t super set on working in the comics world, either. He was thinking about leaving the career to do something else with his life. Thankfully, his wife, Joan, told Lee to “just have fun with it,” and Marvelous things started to happen. (Bu-dum-tish!)

Instead of sticking with the fantastic, Lee decided to write stories that were closer to real life, featuring characters who felt more like real people who fought with each other and worried about their day-to-day lives. Who cares about beating an evil alien from space when you have to worry about paying the bills week-to-week?  

This realism turned out to be what audiences wanted and helped breath new life into a dying industry. Suddenly, we had heroes dealing with threats like drug abuse or racism. And people loved it.

Thanks to Marvel, super heroes once again won the hearts and minds of everyone.

JK! More on the history of Marvel movies: 

Let’s take another jump back in time to 1951.

With the advent of more mature themes like horror came harsher censorship laws about what was okay to include in comics. Basically, a good old fashion moral panic about comics started, claiming that the violent images in horror and superhero comics were ruining the minds of children and turning them into monsters or perverts or whatever.

Thus, the Comics Code Authority began.  Here’s a select list of stuff they insisted on for comics:

  • In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.
  • All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.
  • Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.

Those darn werewolves!

The CCA had a grip on the industry for a long time, until Stan Lee, pushing the envelope once again, published a story about Spiderman dealing with a friend’s serious drug addiction in the 1970s.

The story didn’t portray drug use as “cool” or “fun” as people seemed to think comics were doing, but rather as a serious topic for discussion which, of course, made the CCA try to shut it down. Unfortunately for them, the storyline was well received by audiences. After this incident, the CCA was seen as an outdated system and disbanded in the early 2000s…right around the time Marvel filed for bankruptcy.

Yup. You read that right. Marvel was bankrupt. 

In the late 1990s, the comic industry slumped again and 1/3rd of all Marvel employees were let go. The company tried various methods to stay afloat, including starting a line of CD games, a trading card game, and selling the rights to their intellectual properties. Nothing worked, and it looked like the end was near for the comics giant.

One of the main issues was that while their movies were doing really well, (Remember Blade? Or the first Spiderman movies?), Marvel as a parent company didn’t make any money from them. The studios like Fox and Sony were taking in all the profits, while those who came up with the ideas got zilch.

And then… there was an idea, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born. 

What if Marvel brought together Earth’s mightiest heroes together under one, self-run studio? This was called the Marvel Studios initiative.

Marvel put up a large number of their unsold intellectual properties up for collateral to the bank in order to get the money to start their studio. If their plan flopped, it meant they had to give up the rights to all the characters that would go on to make the MCU that we know and love.

And of course, the plan was a massive failure.

Just kidding.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe gamble paid off big time and went on to do all those things that were mentioned at the beginning of this article. So when you go to the theaters to see the Avengers assemble for one last battle, think about all the missed exploding blimp rides, unnecessary moral panics against werewolves, and blatant intellectual property theft that it took to get us to this point.

More about the Marvel Universe…

The “Marvel Method” of making comics is when the author of the comic would write a page of plots points, then the artist would draw whatever they wanted to take the plot from start to finish. The author would finally come back in and fill in the dialogue after the artist was done.

The DC method, on the other hand, is when the author writes the script and the action beat-for-beat, and then the artist brings that to life.


Notes & Citations 📌

written with 💖 by Julian Vercoutere

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Comments & Reactions

  1. Grady Turner
    Grady Turner
    April 30, 2019 at 11:42 am

    This narrative focusing on Stan Lee diminishes the importance of artist collaborators, particularly Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, and writers such as Chris Claremont, who were shafted by Lee and Marvel.

    • Xavier Ray Taylor
      Xavier Ray Taylor
      January 25, 2020 at 1:40 am

      true not a fully fleshed out article

  2. lindsey rim
    lindsey rim
    March 6, 2020 at 5:28 pm

    Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes is a new exhibition heading to the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI), Chicago in October. The interactive exhibition celebrates 80 years of the Marvel Universe with more than 300 artefacts, including iconic costumes, sketches, props and original art and comics.

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