Universe Lost, Part 5: A Bad Time to Be Successful

If, between 1940 and 1970, you were adapting a DC Comics property for radio, film, or television, you would have to answer to DC’s editorial director, Whitney Ellsworth. DC made sure that every adaptation of their characters into other media received personal attention from the publisher’s creative top dog.

Captain-america_serial_posterIn 1944, when Republic Pictures started production on a movie serial featuring Marvel Comics’ breakout character, Captain America, Marvel editor-in-chief Vince Fago was not quite as attentive.

All that Republic Pictures apparently got from Fago was a handful of sample pages from Captain America Comics that they couldn’t make heads or tails of.

Those pages contained no mention of Captain America’s secret identity (Steve Rogers) nor his origin (the US Army’s Super-Soldier project). When the serial was released, Republic Pictures had turned Captain America into District Attorney Grant Gardner. His origin was never mentioned, he had no military affiliation, and was lacking his comic book counterpart’s trademark shield. The serial version of the character didn’t even fight Nazis, which was kind of Captain America’s thing.

Captain America punches Hitler on the cover of Captain America Comics #1, a full year before the US enters World War II

Captain America punches Hitler on the cover of Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941), nearly a year before the US enters World War II

Readers of Captain America Comics who saw the serial would not recognize the big-screen version of the character. Conversely, anyone inspired by the serial to pick up a Captain America comic book would find the material utterly unfamiliar.

The Captain America serial was Marvel’s first shot at getting one of their super-hero characters into non-comics media. They didn’t get a second opportunity for more than two decades. By contrast, the debut of the Superman radio show in 1940 began a run of DC Comics adaptations that has continued virtually uninterrupted until today.

Marvel Comics #1 (Oct. 1939)

Marvel Comics #1 (Oct. 1939)

Like DC, Marvel Comics’ roots were in pulp fiction. “Marvel” originated as a brand associated with a number of companies owned or co-owned by Martin Goodman, who had been publishing pulps since 1933. Goodman first used the “Marvel” label for a science fiction magazine called Marvel Science Stories in 1938. The next year, Goodman started publishing comic books, with Marvel Comics #1 as his first offering in the new medium.

Marvel’s super-hero characters began crossing over with each other before DC’s did. Marvel Mystery Comics #8 (June 1940) set up a rivalry between the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner, who had previously appeared as separate features in that anthology title.

All-Winners Comics #19 (Fall 1946), first appearance of the All-Winners Squad

All-Winners Comics #19 (Fall 1946), first appearance of the All-Winners Squad

Although Marvel got the jump on DC in taking the first step toward world-building, they were much slower to make any further moves in that direction. The 1946 debut of Marvel’s first super-hero team, the All-Winners Squad, was an act of desperation mandated by Goodman to revitalize the company’s dwindling super-hero line.

World War II had solidified super-heroes as a distinct genre, reshaping them from pulp-inspired anti-heroes into propagandists for American patriotism.

All-Winners Comics #21 (Winter 1946-47), second and final appearance of the All-Winners Squad

All-Winners Comics #21 (Winter 1946-47), second and final appearance of the All-Winners Squad

But once the war ended, comic books went back to their pulp roots, with westerns, crime thrillers, and science fiction becoming more popular again. The All-Winners Squad only appeared in two stories before Marvel abandoned the feature and began shifting its focus away from super-heroes to a more diverse range of genres.

The end of World War II also meant that Sergeant Stanley Lieber was discharged from the US Army. Known professionally as “Stan Lee,” he had started working at Marvel as an assistant editor in 1939, but left to join the military in 1942.

Stan Lee in uniform

Stan Lee in uniform

Lee returned to Marvel as editor-in-chief in 1945, and became the company’s guiding personality for the next three decades. In fact, as a result of a disastrous business decision by Martin Goodman, Lee was personally responsible for rebuilding the company from the ground up.

Perhaps the most important factor in the success or failure of a publishing company is its distribution system. It’s the distributor’s job to get the finished book or magazine into the hands of the consumer; thus the distribution company can potentially make or break a publisher. By the 1950s, the biggest periodical distributor in the US was American News. The secret behind their success was that they also owned the country’s largest chain of newsstands. If a publisher threw in with American News, they were guaranteed shelf space in bus stations, train stations, airports, and corner stores in every major metropolitan area in the country.

The Atlas Magazines logo

The Atlas Magazines logo

American News’ captive newsstand audience tempted many comic book publishers away from other alternatives, including self-distribution, which was how Goodman had previously gotten his product to the public. (Goodman’s in-house distributor, Atlas Magazines, provided his publishing interests with the brand name that they used throughout the 1950s.) In 1956, Goodman inked a distribution deal with American News, dramatically expanding his titles’ market access. By the beginning of 1957, Martin Goodman and Stan Lee were overseeing the most successful comic book publishing enterprise in existence.

It was a bad time to be so successful. Six months after Goodman signed with American News, the company broke up while being investigated for monopolistic practices by the US Department of Justice. The collapse of American News put most of its clients out of business. The only comic book companies left were those with in-house distributors, like DC Comics. Goodman went to DC and asked them to take over distribution of his titles, which they did, but under essentially punitive conditions.

Without the support of American News, the country’s largest comic book publisher became a shoestring operation overnight. For much of 1957 and ’58, Marvel could not afford to produce new material. Goodman laid off every single employee except for editor-in-chief Stan Lee, whose job at that point consisted of reprinting old stories and digging through the company’s inventory looking for any unpublished submissions that might be used to fill an issue.

By late 1958, Marvel was in a position to start hiring again. Lee brought back veteran artist Jack Kirby, who had co-created Captain America for the company in 1941. Kirby’s career can serve as an excellent illustration of the pros and cons of the different editorial climates at DC and Marvel, so he will be the focus of the next installment.

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3 thoughts on “Universe Lost, Part 5: A Bad Time to Be Successful

  1. Pingback: Universe Lost, Part 6: Gods of New York | superadaptoid

  2. Pingback: Universe Lost, Part 7: “When the Old Gods Died!” | superadaptoid

  3. Pingback: Universe Lost: Conclusion | superadaptoid

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