Superhero and comic-book stories are wildly popular today. For being both fun and educational, ABC’s November 4th special Marvel: 75 Years from Pulp to Pop! is the Best TV Show of the Week.
Best TV Show of the Week
Marvel: 75 Years from Pulp to Pop! on ABC
From their beginning in the 1930s through the 1960s, comic books and their stories of super-powered heroes were largely considered “trash,” suitable for consumption only by young children and sub-literates. This began to change in the mid-1960s, in large part because of the company called Marvel Comics. While still filled with stories involving super-heroic action and costumed heroes and villains, under the creative guidance of writers and artists like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck, Dick Ayers, Roy Thomas, and others, Marvel’s stories also began to include more human touches, character development, and a degree of realism, such as heroes bickering with one another and villains not being totally evil. Such a change began to draw in college-age readers as well; and many of these continued reading into their adult years. As a result, comic books and the characters in them have become a dominant force in entertainment today.
Marvel: 75 Years from Pulp to Pop! documents and discusses the history of this evolution. Hostess Emily VanCamp (who played Agent 13 in last summer’s movie Captain America: the Winter Soldier) begins by touching briefly on the current TV series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Then, showing clips from recent Marvel movies like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, the program featured a brief discussion of the “secrets to the success” of Marvel Studios’ films.
Taking viewers back to the origins of Marvel Comics, VanCamp discusses how Marvel began as a small company called Timely Comics, founded by publisher Martin Goodman. An opportunistic publisher, Goodman was “never embarrassed to hop on the hottest trend,” notes current Marvel Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada. With the “hottest trend” of 1939 being the overwhelming success of DC Comics’ Superman, Goodman was not slow to follow up with Marvel Comics #1, featuring the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch. Timely’s entire creative “department” consisted of writer/artists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, with a youngster named Stan Lee working essentially as their intern and “gofer.” With the entry of America into World War II, Timely scored its greatest success with Simon and Kirby’s “super-soldier” character Captain America.
But after the war, comics languished. Without the widespread popularity among hundreds of thousands of soldiers overseas seeking quick, disposable thrills, comics drifted into other channels, such as Bugs Bunny-style “funny animals”, or war stories, or Westerns. Some publishers featured crime and horror, with ultra-graphic stories that wouldn’t be out of place on today’s TV shows like American Horror Story or The Walking Dead. A psychologist named Frederic Wertham warned about the possible negative influences of such comics, and Congressional hearings led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, an industry body which established positive standards for comics.
(Today, for the unthinkable crime of seeking to warn parents, protect children, and establish some minimal standards in comics, the CCA and Wertham are excoriated by revisionist “scholars” as philistine, proto-fascist “censorship” groups who sought only to “force their values” on others and destroy artists’ livelihoods. This is similar to those in the entertainment industry today, who boast endlessly about the educational and “creative” aspects of their work and its positive influence on youth, but utterly refuse to accept even the smallest modicum of responsibility for the negative influences their horrifically gory and sexually explicit “art” has on society. It’s always interesting when those who create fiction, do their utmost to press it on millions of people, and reap millions of dollars in profit, later claim their work has absolutely no influence on anyone whatsoever.)
But things began to change in the 1960s. After 20 years in the business, Stan Lee was ready to quit. But his wife urged him to first try writing the kind of comics he’d like to write and read himself. Stan and Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four and the Hulk. Then, with Steve Ditko, Lee created Spider-Man; and Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man, the Avengers, and the X-Men soon followed – an explosion of new characters and styles which would soon be known as the Marvel Age of Comics.
Into the ‘70s and ‘80s, Marvel became the “House of Ideas,” expanding and experimenting with new styles like science-fiction and monsters. Under new editor-in-chief Jim Shooter and the rise of the direct sales market, comic book artists became “rock stars,” a trend that continued into the ‘90s and beyond…until, around the year 2000, Marvel nearly went bankrupt. But the move of Marvel into film, for the first time with its own studios and under its own control (rather than allowing others creative control over films based on their characters, as had always been the case in the past) gave the company new success – and allowed it to achieve the media dominance it currently holds in the world of entertainment today.
To any true devotee of comics, this program obviously was not perfect. At times, it seemed little more than a commercial for Marvel properties (like the ABC network itself, Marvel is owned by Disney). At others, it went overboard in ascribing Marvel’s ‘60s perspectives on race, minorities, and feminism to conscious, deliberate, progressive activism, rather than a happy confluence of comics’ creativity with the zeitgeist. It frequently skipped over little-known or inconveniently negative facts about Marvel (the unceremonious departure of Steve Ditko; the corporate chaos of the mid-1970s, when simply meeting a monthly publication deadline seemed beyond the ability of Marvel’s creative staff; the company’s long-time refusal to acknowledge the contributions of the line’s co-creator Jack Kirby). It was also more than a little creepy in its sycophantic worship of current CCO Joe Quesada. And, really, this program was only aired on November 4th as a way to fill time between news coverage on Election Night, without disrupting ABC’s regular schedule. As comics themselves were for so many decades, this TV show about comics was ultimately little more than entertaining, fluffy filler.
Yet, the program never was intended as a sober, serious documentary on comics – and, really, who would expect it to be one? For providing families with a show devoid of graphic sex or violence, for giving consumers a modicum of historical background and perspective on a major force in popular culture today, and for doing so in a fun and entertaining manner, ABC’s Marvel: 75 Years from Pulp to Pop! is the Best TV Show of the Week.