The Original Marvel Universe was created in 1961 with the publication of the first issue of the comic book series The Fantastic Four, and it began a slow agonized death almost exactly 30 years later.
Martin Goodman, the publisher of the company that would soon become known as the Marvel Comics Group, saw that his main competitor, National Periodical Publications (now known as DC Comics), was riding a wave of success on a new line of superhero titles. Extremely popular during World War II, superhero comics had fallen by the wayside during the 1950s, and Goodman’s company had found a niche putting out various science-fiction and monster themed comics. Hoping to cash in on the budding superhero revival, Goodman instructed his writer/editor, Stan Lee, to come up with something to compete with Justice League of America. Lee and his primary artistic collaborator, Jack Kirby, devised a family of squabbling heroes who had neither masks nor secret identities, which they named the Fantastic Four. The follow-up to this was The Incredible Hulk, which presented a bad-tempered anti-social monstrous brute as the protagonist.
Having grown bored with the hack writing of the formulaic monthly comics that Goodman preferred, Stan Lee was already considering a career change, and so he adopted a “nothing to lose” attitude toward these new projects. He decided to buck the conventions of the superhero comic, which had seen little variation since their inception some twenty years earlier. The heroes he created with Kirby and his other main artist, Steve Ditko, suffered from self-doubt, romantic anxieties, and financial woes. They had distinctive personalities. Over the next year, their roster grew to include Spider-Man, Thor, and Ant-Man. Then, with relatively little fanfare, Lee, Kirby, and Ditko did something really revolutionary.
At the end of 1962, the various Marvel characters began turning up in each other’s stories, to a degree previously unheard of. In the first issue of his own title, Spider-Man went to the headquarters of the Fantastic Four and made a half-hearted attempt to join their team. That same month, in their own title, the Fantastic Four flew out to the deserts of the American southwest and encountered the Hulk. Suddenly, it was clear that all three inhabited the same fictional world. A few months later, the FF teamed up with Ant-Man as well. Then, the following summer saw the publication of the first issues of The Avengers, in which just about everyone made an appearance.
Cross-overs and team-ups of this type were very rare during the so-called “Golden Age of Comics.” The early superheroes seemed to exist independently of each other, and even when they did happen to meet, little attention was paid to matters of continuity. However, Stan Lee seemed determined that all Marvel’s heroes should exist in the same internally-consistent fictional world. Soon the heroes were routinely battling each other’s villains, and certain supporting characters wandered from title to title, weaving all the stories together into what was eventually called “The Marvel Universe.”
As the years went by, and more and more characters were introduced, and more and more titles were published, the Marvel Universe grew ever more complex, but continuity violations were kept to a minimum, almost as a matter of pride—and when such violations were noticed, they were quickly explained away one way or another. Continuity became a guiding principle at Marvel, and it was that continuity that lifted superhero comics out of the “juvenile literature” trap and captured the interest of college kids (and older) in the late sixties and on into the 1970s. People who were reading Tolkien and Asimov and the like discovered an even more complex, detailed, convoluted, and ever-evolving fictional universe in Marvel Comics. Additionally, readers could even write in to Stan Lee or Chris Claremont or whoever and actually exert some level of influence over the direction the stories would take. And the letters would often be answered in a public forum—decades before the Internet made that seem like a fundamental human right. Thus, the older fans of Marvel felt invested in the comics they were buying and the lives of the characters, who at that time were growing up, getting older, getting married—evolving as people—albeit very slowly. That led the fans who now run the various Marvel chronology websites—such as the Marvel Chronology Project and the Appendix to the Handbook of the Marvel Universe—to buy every “Marvel Universe” comic that came out, no matter how lousy the story and/or art or how ridiculous the characters were—because they were obsessed with this overarching continuity.
Unfortunately, that continuity has now been smashed, rebuilt, and smashed again more times than Hulkbuster Base. Numerous relaunches, revisions, and “retcons” (retroactive continuity) have garbled the characters’ histories to such a degree that all internal cohesion has been lost. And so, the Original Marvel Universe—the one devised by Stan Lee and built up over thirty years by the writers and artists that followed—has been long since abandoned.
As Marvel Comics—variously known as Marvel Entertainment, Inc. or Marvel Characters, Inc.—has grown bigger and bigger as a company, they have adopted other guiding principles, and continuity has fallen out of favor. The end began in 1991, as, Stepford-like, the Original Marvel Universe was replaced by an overlapping second Marvel Universe—although nobody realized it at the time. In this world, the characters began to act bizarrely. The formerly demure Invisible Woman became a slutty exhibitionist. Wolverine devolved into a noseless caricature with gnarly bone claws. Spider-Man endured the much-maligned “Spider Clone Saga.” Iron Man suddenly became 19 years old again. The heroes of the preceding thirty years soon became all but unrecognizable.
That second version has also since been abandoned for the ever-changing “retcons” that have followed. Now there appear to be three or four simultaneous but mutually-exclusive Marvel Universes, and keeping track of what happens in which is well nigh impossible. It used to be that you could take an adventure the X-Men were having and figure out what the Fantastic Four were doing at the same time. Not anymore. Now you have multiple versions of the X-Men being published every month. In fact, there is no “Marvel Universe” anymore, just a bunch of characters being published in various titles with splashy yet interchangeable covers. Now Marvel just publishes whatever the hell they want with no regard to what has come before. Sometimes this can be liberating, but sometimes it just makes the audience say “who cares?”
Digging down through the piles of crappy comics that have been shoveled on top of it, though, we discover that the Original Marvel Universe still exists, perfectly preserved, and like the site of any archeological excavation, is waiting to be explored, to see what secrets it may yet contain.
Next Issue: Exploring the Original Marvel Universe!