Sunday, October 13, 2013

Martin Goodman at the center of the universe

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story begins with the ultimate "untold" story; the rise to power and prominence of Marvel publisher Martin Goodman. Like the root at the bottom of the great world tree Yggdrasil, all of Marvel's history springs forth from the actions of this one man. While comic book historians like Les Daniels and Will Murray have chronicled Goodman's early life and forays into magazine and pulp publishing, Untold Story author Sean Howe took on the task of combining and fact-checking their discoveries and filling in the blanks. His story, like most all men of his generation, is about building something from nothing.

Goodman was born in 1908. He traveled the country during the Great Depression, living in hobo camps and doing odd jobs for cash. He learned to think on his feet and developed the keen business acumen that would aid him later in life. By his early twenties, he showed and affinity for magazine production and distribution and worked for publishers like John Goldwater and Harry Donenfeld during the Golden Age of the Pulps. Donenfeld would go on to publish a little rag called Detective Comics, by the way. By 1932, he was part-owner of his own publishing house, Western Fiction. The pulp magazines and "penny dreadfuls" were the disposable entertainment of the day. Geared toward the young male reader and rife with fantastic and horrifying characters, they were in a sense the godfather of the modern comic book. In fact, the comic book as we think of it today is merely a form of sequential art bred from the pulps and the emerging medium of comic strips.

Perhaps Goodman wasn't present for the birth of the first comic book, but he was damn close to its point of origin, and not far behind in jumping on the bandwagon. The first comic books were low-cost loss leaders; reprints of comic strips in pamphlet form that flew off of vendor's racks in such a quick fashion that publishers soon decided it would behoove them to try and corner this market by hiring unknown artists to produce original content. Working in comics would have quite a stigma associated with it until the pop culture shifts of the 1960s, and was considered second rate to having a syndicated strip like Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates or Dickie Dare.

For the bulk of Goodman's tenure as the head honcho of either Marvel, Timely, Atlas, or any of its other earlier incarnations, comic books were merely supplementary income and never his main concern. Goodman fancied himself a more respectable publisher than that, and focused his own energies on the magazine side of things. There was definitely a soft spot in his heart for the potential for fantastic adventure and science fiction stories, however, or he would have scrapped the line at some point. The word Marvel itself seems to have some significance to the man, as it appeared in magazine titles as early as 1935's Marvel Science Stories.

Moving ahead a bit toward the end of the decade, we can see the transformation of the pulp-inspired mystery man into what we now affectionately refer to as a superhero. The original heroes were simply pulp adventurers injected with a science fiction or occult bend. Less calculating and worldly, more suited to action and feats of dynamism. On the Marvel side of things (then called Timely), characters like Karl Burgos' Human Torch and Bill Everett's Sub-Mariner took things to a new extreme and were true precursors to the Marvel Age of comics. There was an arms race in the superhero world, and characters were getting stronger and stranger.

What does this say about Goodman as a publisher though? Stories about the man vary wildly. He was known to be an overlord to some and a saint to others. One former staff member would regale you with a story of Goodman's kindness, writing a blank check to an employee whose child had landed in the hospital, while another would be quick to remind you of the layoffs that occurred time and time again in a vicious cycle through the fifties. Once comic book production had been broken down into a process, publishers like Timely would commission work by the truckload, filling file cabinets and drawers with finished stories ready to be published at a moment’s notice. When they were far enough ahead, Goodman could axe a good chunk of his staff and then replace them with even cheaper freelancers. This practice made many promising artists gun shy about working in comics and drove them to other fields like advertising and movie production.

John Romita was one such individual. It would take over a decade for Stan Lee to coax him back over to Marvel. Jack Kirby was another. He'd already been burned before, and at one point (long before his world famous collaborations with Stan Lee on Fantastic Four and Avengers) that he would "never work for that son of a bitch again."

Creatively, Goodman was a wildly experimental publisher early on. As long as book would sell, his artists had free reign to go wild with stories. Such lenience led to the first "crossover" of sorts, when the android Human Torch and the tyrannical Sub-Mariner did battle in Manhattan. Sure, Goodman would try and keep abreast of the latest trends and force some unproven artists to provide stick stories in the genres of Western and Romance, but proven commodities had full artistic freedom. This would dampen in the fifties, however, as comic censorship became a big problem and comics were the target of angry parents and teachers. Superheroes would all but disappear in the post-war years, and by the time of Fredrick Wertham and Seduction of the Innocent, there were only a few marquee characters that would maintain a presence. Unfortunately, Marvel didn't own them.

At the dawn of the Marvel Age, just as Stan Lee was growing tired of writing romance and western books and artists like Jack Kirby were getting tired of drawing stagnant monster concepts every month, there is a story that is to Marvel fans the equivalent of splitting the atom. Goodman was playing golf with Jack Liebowitz, publisher of DC comics, and hearing Jack rave about the success of their new title, Justice League of America. It was a simple enough concept; produce a strip about a team of heroes rather than a single hero and the marketing could write itself. The idea of a group of heroes gave the reader a desire (and an opportunity, through fan clubs and newsletters) to be included. The superhero team was also marketable through the argument that a comic with a whole team of heroes is a better bargain for thrifty readers, story quality be damned. Goodman left the golf game and immediately told Stan Lee to come up with a hero team book. Lee was on the verge of quitting comics, but as the story goes his wife encouraged him to give this new title a shot and just "do it your way, since you're gonna quit anyway."

Historians and even witnesses to this era of comics have debunked this story, and naturally Jack Kirby tells it quite differently, but the fact remains that Goodman kept his finger on the pulse and was the primary force behind the creation of the Marvel universe. Not just from a business standpoint, but as a creative talent in his own right. Goodman had the vision to force Stan and Jack to give the hero book one last go, and it would change everything.

I've jumped around quite a bit today, and rambled about some things that might not be quite apropos to the subject of Goodman the man, so I'll call it a day. Before I get into the Fantastic Four and the birth of the Marvel Universe as we know it, there's a lot more to say about the Golden Age of comics and the World War II heroes like Captain America and the Destroyer. But my examination of Marvel's history is only beginning here folks, and there are many places you can better enlighten yourself. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a great start, as is the book Tales to Astonish by Ronin Ro. There's also Les Daniels' Marvel: Five Decades of the World's Greatest Comics.

My ultimate goal here is to not simply regurgitate the information I've read elsewhere, since that won't do anybody any good. I hope to find the link between creator and creation, and examine the conflict between business and art. I'll admit, as a thesis statement, it's pretty half-baked. But I hope my focus and reason for doing this becomes more refined as my research continues. Thanks for reading if you got this far, and check back daily for new updates and jumbled thoughts.



  1. Thought provoking this article is, thanks for posting it. Goodman was the guy who put up his money where his mouth was. As I note in this link from my own cursory opening shot examination of Martin Goodman
    Stan Lee says quite a few places he was simply following orders from his boss.

    There is the time worn adage "follow the money" and one will find the truth.

  2. Thank so much for posting this! Always happy to see more info on Martin Goodman.