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The ups and downs of Marvel Comics

Philipp Jedicke
June 1, 2021

Stan Lee revolutionized the superhero genre, but Marvel Comics also went bankrupt: An exhibition in Munich celebrates the 60th anniversary of the cult comic book publisher.

 A painting of Wolverine in the snow.
A Wolverine illustration from 2002 on show in the exhibitionImage: Wolverine Netsuke, George Pratt ©MARVEL

Spider-Man, Iron Man or the Incredible Hulk: Everyone knows the superheroes from the ever-growing Marvel Comics universe.

The now world-famous Marvel Comics brand emerged in 1961 from the Timely Comics publishing house, which had been founded in 1939 and had already created successful characters such as Captain America.

Superhero comics were tremendously popular during the 1930s and 40s, but they lost their momentum after the war.

During the McCarthy era in the US in the late 40s and 50s, stories featuring exemplary role models were advocated. Comics were believed to harm kids' intellectual development. Superheroes — often broken characters who weren't clearly good or bad — fell victim to a specially established comic book censorship agency.

An original 'Iron-Man' illustration from 1979 by Bob Layton
An original 'Iron-Man' illustration from 1979 by Bob Layton, also part of the exhibitionImage: Iron Man, Bob Layton ©MARVEL

The resurrection of superheroes

All those rules were broken in the revolutionary 1960s. Comics and superheroes experienced a tremendous renaissance. In collaboration with illustrators such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Marvel comic author Stan Lee created characters that became cult, including the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Spider-Man and Iron Man.

Marvel's return to superheroes was also inspired by the success of their rival, DC Comics, who were giving a comeback to Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman and other classics. The competition between the two publishing companies had existed since the 1930s; they constantly tried to outdo each other with new ideas. 

Stan Lee, Marvel's real-life 'superhero'

Over time, the charismatic Stan Lee increasingly became Marvel's media darling, which led to great frustration among the company's co-authors and illustrators. Kirby and Ditko left the publishing company, feeling their rights as creators were not being properly recognized.

During the 80s and 90s, Marvel progressively focused on releasing collectors' items. But the overinflated comic book market eventually collapsed, and Marvel went bankrupt in 1996.

The blockbuster comeback

Marvel bounced back by selling film rights to large studios, allowing the comic book empire to enjoy a second golden era.

Today, film franchises such as X-Men, Avengers or Spider-Man are among Hollywood's most successful productions. With films like Black Panther or Black Widow with Scarlett Johansson, Marvel has successfully given itself a new, more contemporary image.

Film still - 'Avengers 4' with Thor (Chris Hemsworth)
A second golden age for Marvel: 'Avengers 4: Endgame' broke many box office recordsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Marvel/Walt Disney Germany

An exhibition celebrating the publishing giant

The exhibition "60 Years of the Marvel Comics Universe" revisits the history of Marvel Comics, which directly reflects a part of American cultural history.

Over 180 original drawings, letters and other exhibits from comic artists, including Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Romita Sr. and many others, provide a comprehensive picture of the ever-growing Marvel Empire from its beginnings to the present.

Developed in cooperation with the Munich Comic Festival, "60 Years of the Marvel Comics Universe" is on show at the Amerikahaus Munich from June 1 to September 30.

This article was translated from German.