Face front, True Believers! While we anxiously anticipate another annum of adventurous antics (Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk will hit theaters in 2008), let’s turn to this titanic testament to the House of Ideas: The Marvel Vault!
In truth, this coffee-table history lesson (edited by former Marvel writers Roy Thomas and Peter Sanderson) doesn’t cover much territory that hasn’t been explored before — Les Daniels’ Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics and Sanderson’s own Marvel Universe were similarly handsome overviews. You probably know the basics: Stan Lee revolutionized the comics world with tales of flawed protagonists; Jack Kirby and others provided the dynamic imagery. But the scrapbook-like Marvel Vault also includes reproductions of classic Marvel memorabilia, enclosed in vinyl pouches, which tell a sort of alternate history of the company: the ways in which Marvel connected with its fanbase.
Sure, there had been fan clubs before, but before the M.M.M.S. (Merry Marvel Marching Society) there had never been such a feeling — however illusory it might have been — of community. For a measly dollar, readers would not only receive a button, stickers, 7-inch record, membership card, and stationery, they’d also get their names printed in the comics. Stan Lee’s aw-shucks hucksterism was a big part of the draw. Slangy and relentlessly upbeat — he never met an exclamation point he didn’t like — Smilin’ Stan could seem like a walking, talking Marvel ad, but he knew how to make everything feel like an inside joke. The unhinged alliteration (“A profound potpourri of perplexing pronouncements and preposterous philosophy, all portending practically nothing!”) was tempered with a healthy dose of self-deprecation that was just as fresh as Doyle Dane Bernbach’s contemporaneous Volkswagen ads. And beginning in 1964, Marvel did something truly revolutionary: it began talking about the behind-the-scenes action at Marvel as if it was a family.
Marvel had been among the first publishers to credit letterers,inkers, and colorists, but this was unheard of: giving nicknames to thewhole staff (“Jolly Jack Kirby!” “Swinging Steve Ditko!” “Jazzy JohnRomita!”) and publishing photos of everyone from secretaries toproduction managers to the head of the subscription department. Okay,so maybe the whole family wasn’t as happy as you’d like to think, but there was a palpable sense that Marvel was at least tryingto be egalitarian. That image of virtue wasn’t lost on college campuses— 50,000 students joined the MMMS and voted Spidey and the Hulk”favorite revolutionaries,” on a list that included Che Guevara and BobDylan.
Now, I was at prime comic-reading age in the early ’80s, the time of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s X-Men and Frank Miller’s Daredevil,which will probably always be my favorite superhero comic. But I’d haveto admit that Marvel was by and large already past its prime. You don’teven have to read the comics to know this: just look at the laterMarvel swag collected in the Vault: we’re treated to such funmementos as a Marvel office building visitor’s pass, a theme-restaurantmenu, and… a stockholder’s certificate? Maybe the dampening of spiritshouldn’t come as a surprise; by this time, Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooterhad already authored a notorious memo about tricking “the little f—s”into buying more comics.
So now, in the Internet Age, one would think that the feeling ofcommunity would return, that Marvel employees and Marvel fans wouldfeel the warm embrace again. But this is how they talked to their fans in 1966. And here’s how they talk to their fans now.
To me there seems a crucial difference even in current honcho JoeQuesada’s blithe sign-off line “See ya in the funnybooks” and StanLee’s energized “Excelsior!” What do you think, PopWatch Pilgrims? HasMarvel Comics’ ability to express fellowship with its fans lostsomething, or is it only my silly nostalgia?