Because I’ve spent the last few years writing a behind-the-scenes account of Marvel Comics, the subject of superheroes often comes up in casual conversation with people I meet, some of whom have only a passing, polite interest in the topic. Maybe they read a few comics decades ago; maybe they saw one or two of the recent blockbuster movies. One question that comes up over and over again is about differentiating the Marvel brand from its competition. “Marvel: that’s Batman and Spider-Man, right? Or is it Superman? I always get them confused….”
Those who were raised on a steady diet of four-color adventures find it surprising that the entire world hasn’t memorized the exact affiliations of comic’s biggest names—after all, not even those who are most willfully ignorant of sports or rock & roll would ever guess that Derek Jeter might be on the Mets, or remember Keith Richards as a Beatle.
And there’s a very sensible reason that the Marvel Comics brand should serve as an organizing principle for its characters. Nearly all of the stories published by Marvel take place in a single fictional universe (although, unlike Superman’s Metropolis or Batman’s Gotham City, the Marvel world is centered in a place called, uh, “New York City”). Its characters rub shoulders on a regular basis and long-simmering plot points can stretch on for decades. It’s a dizzyingly complicated mythos, kind of like if ABC’s Lost had run year-round for fifty years but also if each character had his or her own spinoff series and crossed over to the other series every few weeks. In fact, as far as I’ve been able to figure, the world of Marvel Comics is—literally—the most elaborate fictional tapestry in the history of man. (If you can come up with a challenger, I’m all ears.)
The reality is that it’s downright odd that these characters are so regularly identified according to their corporate homes. Outside of comic books, you’d be hard-pressed to name other fictional luminaries so disassociated from their individual creators. Mention Huckleberry Finn, Harry Potter, Dracula, and Luke Skywalker, and most folks will come back with the names of Mark Twain, J.K. Rowling, Bram Stoker, and George Lucas—not American Publishing Co., Bloomsbury, Constable & Co., and 20th Century Fox. But in the comic book industry, where writers and artists have traditionally waived ownership of their inventions, the origins of even the most prominent modern mythological heroes are often shrouded in anonymity. How quickly can you name the creators of Captain America, Spider-Man, and Wolverine, to cite three of the most popular Marvel characters? (In the interest of education, respectively: Joe Simon & Jack Kirby; Steve Ditko & Stan Lee; Len Wein & John Romita.)
To be fair, since many of Marvel marquee’s names were borne out of collaborations between an artist and a writer, it’s probably much simpler for the human brain to assign and retain one author’s name (just ask Ub Iwerks, the undersung co-creator of “Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse”). And the constantly evolving nature of serial fiction means that there’s a nearly democratic, cadavre exquis quality to the creative process. But the heroes that make up the Marvel pantheon were the creations of hard-working, emotionally invested men, many of whom put the better parts of their lives into low-paying shifts behind drawing tables and typewriters. Just because one company owns all the trademarks doesn’t mean that history should forget the people behind the ideas.