The most bizarre plot twist in comic book history could be DC Comics’ accidental inspiration of the creation of the Marvel Universe.
Marvel became DC’s biggest and most successful competitor because of its superhero universe. Ironically, it was DC Comics that inspired Timely Comics to reenter the superhero business and launch what became the Marvel Universe.
Incredibly, the true origin of the Marvel Universe could have been at a golf game in 1961. Comic industry legend claims Atlas Comics and Timely Comics’ publisher Martin Goodman was golfing with unknown DC executives, when he became annoyed about his competitors’ bragging about the success of a new comic book.
The DC executives were bragging about the high sales of The Justice League of America, the first new superhero team comic in over a decade. The DC executives boasts so annoyed Goodman that he launched his own superhero team title. DC’s sales figures inspired another version of the story claims.
A Golf Game that ultimately cost Billions
Consequently, Goodman ordered his editor-in-chief and cousin Stan “the Man” Lee to create a superhero team to compete with DC’s. Lee teamed up with legendary artist Jack “the King” Kirby to create The Fantastic Four. Comics historians regard Fantastic Four #1 as the beginning of the Marvel Universe.
Hence, DC executives could have created their most dangerous competitor with a little loose talk about sales figures. If the golf game story is true, an unknown comic executive’s bragging led to the creation of a new line of superhero titles that outsold DC’s titles for decades.
In the 21st Century, the Marvel Universe inspired the Marvel Cinematic Universe, spawning a series of blockbuster films that humiliated DC’s superhero movies at the box office. Incredibly, Marvel movies made $7.5 billion at the global box between 2008 and February 2021, Overmental estimates. Overmental calculates each Marvel movie made an average of $716 million.
Note: I think these numbers are low because they do not include Black Widow and The Eternals which Disney released later in 2021. The two Marvel Spiderman films are also inexplicably missing.
The Comic Business in the 1950s
During the 1950s, DC Comics dominated the American comic book industry with popular superheroes such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. DC was number one because it had a monopoly on superheroes for almost a decade.
To explain, DC gained a monopoly by suing its principal competitor out of existence. Superman had premiered in 1938’s Action Comics #1, creating a sensation and launching a new genre. Predictably, other publishers began creating their own superheroes.
Superman’s most popular rival was Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel, who hit the newsstands in 1939. Although his appearance and powers mirrored Superman’s, Captain Marvel was a distinct character. For example, Superman was an alien masquerading as a newspaper reporter, while Captain Marvel was a young boy transformed into a superhero by magic.
The Lawsuit that Killed Captain Marvel
In a few years, Captain Marvel’s popularity exceeded Superman’s. Prime reasons for the Captain’s success included better art and writing. Another attraction was the innovation of a superfamily, a group of unique characters with similar powers to Captain Marvel’s. For example, Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel Junior.
Fawcett’s writers game Captain Marvel a rogue’s gallery of bizarre villains. The writers also created ambitious science fiction stories, including tales about nuclear war and alien invasion. Captain Marvel became so popular that Republic Pictures made it into a movie serial, the first live-action superhero film.
Note: the 1940s Captain Marvel is no relation to the current Marvel character. They based that character on a different Captain Marvel Stan Lee created in the late 1960s. However, the original Captain Marvel survives to this day as DC’s SHAZAM.
In 1941, National Comics, the company that became DC Comics, sued Fawcett for infringement of its Superman copyright. National’s lawyers argued that Captain Marvel was a ripoff of Superman and therefore a copyright violation. The lawsuit dragged on for years, and Fawcett won on a technicality.
Eventually in 1950, distinguished Federal Judge Learned Hand (yes, that was his real name) reversed the earlier ruling. Hand ruled that Captain Marvel was a deliberate and unabashed copy of Superman. Hand ordered Fawcett to stop publishing Captain Marvel. The judge also ordered Fawcett to pay DC $400,000 in damages.
Politics not copyright law could have been the true motivation of Hand’s ruling. In the late 1940s and 1950s, comic books were the victim of mass hysteria. Psychologist Fredric Wertham created the hysteria by alleging comics promoted homosexuality, violence, racism, juvenile delinquency, and even Nazism.
The media eagerly publicized Wertham’s sensational claims. Newspaper publishers were quick to promote Wertham’s ideas because they viewed comic books as competitors to their lucrative comic pages. Notably, some major newspaper comic strip cartoonists jumped on the anti-comic book band wagon.
Wertham’s crusade led to the banning of comics, and mass comic book burning in some areas. Hence, Hand could have been pandering to popular sentiment rather than ruling on a point of law.
The Silver Age and the Fantastic Four
DC Comics capitalized on Captain Marvel’s demise by hiring Fawcett’s creative team and revamping Superman and Batman to be more like Captain Marvel.
Notably, both the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader gained “families.” Superman had Supergirl, Superboy, Super Dog, Super Cat, and even a Super Horse. Batwoman and Batgirl, Ace the Bat Hound, and joined Batman and Robin even Bat-Mite (please don’t ask). Moreover, writers began creating elaborate science fiction plots and back stories for DC’s superheroes.
In 1956, DC began the Silver Age of Comics by revamping its 1940s superhero, the Flash. The New Look Flash had a sleek costume, a new secret identity, and a Rogue’s Gallery of strange and colorful villains to fight. The Flash’s success led DC to revamp and relaunch several classic heroes, including the Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Atom.
In 1960, DC grouped several of its heroes into the Justice League of America, a revival of a 1940s or Golden Age comic called The Justice Society of America. It was The Justice League’s popularity that motivated Goodman to reenter the superhero business.
To elaborate, Timely or Atlas Comics had been one of the leading superhero comics publishers during the Golden Age of the 1940s. In fact, one Timely hero, Captain America, rivaled Superman and Captain Marvel in popularity at the beginning of World War II.
However, by the early 1960s, Timely had fallen on hard times. The once-proud publisher was churning out a handful of monster comics. Ironically, Timely had to rely upon DC to distribute its comics in the USA.
Oddly, both the Captain Marvel lawsuit and the anti-comics hysteria shaped the Fantastic Four. To avoid the wrath of DC’s lawyers, Lee and Kirby made the Fantastic Four as different from classic superheroes as possible.
For example, the Fantastic Four wore plain uniforms similar to long underwear rather than colorful costumes. Moreover, two of its members were middle-aged World War II veterans. One Mr. Fantastic even had some gray hair. The Fantastic Four’s teenaged member; the Human Torch, was an obnoxious jerk and its female member, the Invisible Girl, a vain fashionista.
Plus, the Fantastic Four’s most popular member, The Thing, was a monster. The super-strong Thing looked like a deformed pile of stones rather than an Adonis. In his stories, Lee portrayed the Fantastic Four as misfits whom the public hates and fears rather than popular heroes. In one early issue, for example, the government imprisons the Fantastic Four as a threat to National Security.
Finally, the Fantastic Four’s enemies resembled the monsters Timely had specialized in rather than classic super villains. Hence, the Fantastic Four’s storytelling was closer to 1950s Sci-Fi movies or monster comics in story than classic superhero tales.
Fortuitously, Lee’s efforts to distinguish the new Marvel Comics from DC struck a chord with comic fans. Many readers, especially teenagers, liked the emphasis on flawed characters with all-too human weaknesses.
The Rise of the Marvel Universe
Marvel took off, and Lee and Goodman began introducing new characters such as The Hulk, Dr. Strange, Iron Man, Daredevil, The X-Men, The Avengers, Nick Fury, and Spider-Man.
Spider-Man became the first superhero since the Golden Age to rival Batman and Superman in popularity. Additionally, Marvel revived the Golden Age stalwarts Captain America and The Submariner.
Hence, DC Comics’ actions ultimately spawned the Marvel Universe. The Universe made Marvel the most popular and dominant brand in comics. By the 1970s, Marvel was regularly outselling DC.
By 2009, Marvel was so successful, Disney (NYSE: DIS) purchased it for $4 billion. Disney CEO Bob Iger said he paid the price to get his hands on the “trove of over 5,000 characters” that make up the Marvel Universe. In recent years, Marvel has been dominating DC at the Box Office. Moreover, Marvel shows are the driving force behind the Disney+ streaming service.
Hence, the Mighty Marvel Universe and the piles of cash it generates could only exist because of an executive’s golf course bragging. The lesson for entrepreneurs from this story is obvious. Keep your mouth shut about your success, particularly around your competitors. If you don’t, your bragging could tell them how to beat you.