Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Marvel Collector's Item Classics Christmas Special: The Editorial "Whee!"

Marvel’s Rollercoaster, 1972-77
by Matthew Bradley

Note: As we slide gracefully from the swingin' sixties into the sensational seventies, we'll offer "Sunday Specials" now and then, thoughts on what the decade means (or meant) to us, notes on the fads, and some surprises still to be mapped out. Enjoy! -Professor Pete

Nope, it ain't Tom Petty
My Marvel years are neatly bracketed by the tenures as editor in chief (EIC) of Stan Lee, in place since before I was born or there was a Marvel, and Jim Shooter (1978-87), who helped usher me out at the end of the Bronze Age, circa 1985.  In Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics (to which I am immeasurably indebted), the late Les Daniels notes that after “Stan the Man” passed the torch to “Roy the Boy” Thomas in September 1972, “the head editorial post was occupied by five men [Thomas, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Gerry Conway, and Archie Goodwin] in less than five years.”  Quite the rollercoaster, but it was my favorite Marvel era and, according to Daniels, “the eventual result of this upheaval was Marvel’s transformation into the unquestioned leader of the comic book industry,” so one hopes that, like a rollercoaster, it was fun as well as scary.

All five of these men had been among Marvel’s top writers before becoming EIC, and continued to write during and after their tenures; many in fact left the post because they preferred to focus on the creative rather than the business aspects; several graduated to writer/editor contracts that later became controversial, because they were believed to be insufficiently supervised.  If you’re like me, you rarely if ever read a comic book and say, “Man, that was really well edited,” so I thought it might be interesting to look not only at any changes that took place while they were EICs, but also at their major writing credits.  “Major” is, in this case, at least partially subjective, so I apologize if I’ve omitted your favorites, and as a further disclaimer, if I indicate a range of issues for a specific run (e.g., #51-71), that doesn’t necessarily mean the person wrote every single issue in between.

Marv Wolfman
As a writer, Thomas was second only to Lee in the length and breadth of his contribution:  during his initial 15-year stint with Marvel, he scripted virtually every major strip at one time or another, frequently succeeding Stan directly, and displayed an unrivaled focus on continuity, often creating stories to fill or explain existing gaps.  He co-created, launched, or revamped the likes of Brother Voodoo, Captain Marvel, the Defenders, Doc Samson, Ghost Rider, the Invaders, Iron Fist, Killraven, Man-Thing, Marvel Team-Up, Morbius, Ms. Marvel, Ultron, Valkyrie, Warlock, What If?, and Yellowjacket.  He also expanded Marvel’s horizons with licensed properties Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja, Star Wars, and Tarzan; among his notable runs were Avengers #35-104 (including the famed Kree-Skrull War), X-Men #55-66, Sub-Mariner #1-39, and Fantastic Four #126-37 & 157-81.

Hired as a staff writer, Roy epitomized a new generation of Marvel creators who grew up as Marvel fans, and started making his mark on the company even while serving as Stan’s unofficial assistant.  Another important thread running through this tapestry was Marvel’s relationship with the industry’s self-censoring Comics Code Authority, whose restrictions they either challenged directly, by publishing an Amazing Spider-Man trilogy about drug addiction—at the request of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare—without the Code’s seal of approval, or sidestepped with a new line of black-and-white magazines not subject to the Code.  Partly as a result of the drug issues, some of the Code rules were relaxed, allowing horrific content (verboten since the EC furore of the 1950s) to resurface 

in new titles like Werewolf by Night, Tomb of Dracula, and The Monster of Frankenstein.

Gerry Conway
As EIC, Thomas presided over the breathtaking, if somewhat scattershot, expansion that Stan had announced simultaneously with Roy’s elevation and dubbed “Phase Two.”  This outstripped even the frenzy of 1968, when a change in distribution policy finally allowed Marvel to grant individual titles (some of them short-lived) to characters who previously shared space in the so-called “split books”—Captain America, Dr. Strange, the Hulk, Iron Man, Nick Fury, the Sub-Mariner—as well as creating new titles for Captain Marvel and the Silver Surfer.  In 1972 alone, they added an average of more than one title or strip per month to their schedule, but while it continued for several years, this policy of launching books like a bunch of drunken sailors was clearly unsustainable, and finally they seemed to cancel books as fast as they created them, clearly unable to foretell success or failure.

“Roy was great,” Lee told Daniels.  “He saved my life when I stopped editing, because I had to find somebody who could follow my style fairly well.  Roy fit the bill beautifully.”  Now Marvel’s publisher, Lee was forced to lighten his writing load (although alternating with Roy on Spidey until 1973), and even briefly served as president, while increasing his role as the public face of Marvel through college lecturing and the like.  Roy, meanwhile, created concepts and storylines for many of the new strips, often without credit, and then turned the scripting duties over to other young writers.  One major trend was to diversify their roster of overwhelmingly white, male heroes, finally awarding the first black super-hero, the Black Panther, his own strip, and introducing others who were female (The Cat, Shanna the She-Devil), black (Luke Cage, Hero for Hire), or Asian (Master of Kung Fu).

That much expansion demanded extra supervision:  the post of art director, previously an additional hat worn by Lee as EIC, went to Spider-Man legend John Romita in July 1973, and when the horror-heavy black-and-white magazines grew into their own division, Roy recruited “Marvelous Marv” Wolfman (who created Crazy, their answer to Mad) to serve as editor.  Outgoing personnel during the same period included two freelance artists who enjoyed relatively brief but legendary collaborations with Thomas, Neal Adams (X-Men, Avengers) and Barry Smith (Conan the Barbarian), now known as Windsor-Smith.  At the end of 1974, with such major new writers as Wein, Conway, Steve Englehart, Steve Gerber, and Jim Starlin also on board, Roy resigned as EIC and turned the reins over to Wein, a friend of Conway’s who’d famously created Swamp Thing for rival DC Comics.

Len Wein
“Lively Len” made modest contributions to the early years of such books as Werewolf by Night (#5-8), Power Man (#17-21), and Defenders (#12-19), also scripting the short-lived Brother Voodoo strip in Strange Tales #169-73.  Longer runs included Marvel Team-Up #11-27, Fantastic Four #154-57 & 182-94, Amazing Spider-Man #151-180, Thor #242-71, and particularly Incredible Hulk #179-222, but his biggest claim to fame was reviving the X-Men with Dave Cockrum, having previously co-created Wolverine as an antagonist for the Hulk.  Thomas was also integral to the project, yet it did not come to fruition until after the changing of the guard, while Wein soon turned the writing over to his assistant, Chris Claremont—whose 17-year stint on the book is the stuff of industry legend—and in the summer of 1975 resigned as EIC in favor of Wolfman, whose old job Goodwin filled.

Befitting his moniker, Wolfman was best known for Marvel’s more macabre offerings, contributing short stints to Werewolf by Night (#11-15) and Dr. Strange (#19-23), and penning all but the first six issues of Tomb of Dracula (#7-70), for which he and penciler Gene Colan created the vampire-hunter Blade.  He also wrote more conventional double-digit runs, including Daredevil #125-43, Power Man #35-46, Fantastic Four #190-215, Amazing Spider-Man #182-204, and Marvel Two-in-One #25-38; inaugurated the Edgar Rice Burroughs property John Carter, Warlord of Mars (#1-15) and Spider-Woman (#1-8); and wrote the entire run of Nova (#1-25).  Among the highlights of his days as EIC, which lasted until early 1976, was shepherding Steve Gerber’s cult favorite Howard the Duck, introduced in the Man-Thing strip from (Adventure into) Fear, into his own title.

Archie Goodwin
Also during Wolfman’s editorship, James Galton became Marvel’s next president (1975-90), and worked well with Stan to rectify an ominous combination of high sales and low profits, partly by reducing the bewildering number of titles they published.  The company suffered a blow to its credibility whenever delivery schedules were not met, so Wolfman instituted an inventory system whereby fill-in issues were created—mostly by writer Bill Mantlo and artist Sal Buscema—to obviate the need for reprints when there was a hole in the production schedule.  Wolfman’s replacement as EIC, “Merry Gerry” Conway, began writing for DC at the tender age of 16, and was recruited by Roy a year later in 1970, but gave new meaning to the term revolving door (“We used to say, ‘Don’t paint his name on the door, just tack it up,’” Stan Lee told Daniels) with his one-month stint c. March 1976.

The brevity of Conway’s hitch as EIC was inversely proportional to his significance as a writer, justly famed  for his historic run on Amazing Spider-Man (#111-49), during which he controversially killed off Gwen Stacy and the original Green Goblin, Norman Osborn, and introduced the Punisher.  He succeeded Thomas on Sub-Mariner (#40-49), Daredevil (#72-98), and Fantastic Four (#133-52), and scripted the first issues of Tomb of Dracula; Werewolf by Night; Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man; and Ms. Marvel.  Further significant runs included Thor #193-238 and two tours of duty apiece on Iron Man (#35-43 & 91-97) and Marvel Team-Up (#2-12 & 28-37), but just as impressive was Conway’s diversity, with shorter stints on an astounding array of titles:  Astonishing Tales, Amazing Adventures, Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Avengers, Defenders, Ghost Rider, et al.

He That Shall Not Be Named
The natural “next in line” in the spring of 1976 was beloved writer and editor “Artful [or Amiable] Archie” Goodwin, whose interest in Marvel had first been piqued by working with Colan and Steve Ditko for Warren Publications on the black-and-white horror comic magazines Creepy (which pioneered the format) and Eerie.  It would be some time before Marvel was out of the woods—cutbacks were now common, and they had to wait for the problematic writer-editor contracts to expire—but Galton’s austerity measures succeeded in stanching the red ink, and as he told Daniels, “Within a year, we were profitable,” with future EIC Shooter attributing the company’s very survival to the runaway hit Star Wars.  By the time Goodwin resigned as EIC in late 1977, Marvel was bursting forth into other media with the Amazing Spider-Man newspaper strip and Incredible Hulk TV pilot films.

Although he had been writing for Marvel longer than his three immediate predecessors as EIC, Goodwin had a comparatively thin list of credits with the company, especially in the super-hero genre that was their bread and butter.  In that capacity, he is most notable for following Stan on the venerable Iron Man strip, seeing it through the transition from the last days of Tales of Suspense and the one-shot Iron Man and Sub-Mariner to Shellhead’s solo title, of which he wrote the first 28 issues.  Goodwin had the bad luck to succeed Jim Steranko on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (#6-7); gave the world Luke Cage, Hero for Hire (#1-4); contributed rather more substantial runs with Incredible Hulk #148-57 and especially Star Wars #11-50; and wrote a smattering of issues of Fantastic Four (#115-18), Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man (#4-8) and, years later, Dazzler (#38-42).

On the first working day of ’78, Archie’s replacement took over, but that’s another story:

Merry Christmas to all our faithful readers from the Zombies at Marvel University! We'll be back in our regular Wednesday slot next week.


  1. As a faithful reader of Marvel comics during the years in question, I never paid much (or any) attention to who was the editor. Thanks for this insightful look at the turmoil behind the scenes during this period of creativity!

  2. Thanks, Professor Jack. Complicating things further is, of course, the fact that the editor credited on any given issue may not be the same as the EIC at the time, whose identity might more likely be revealed by a close persual of Marvel's monthly Bullpen Bulletins page. Like you, I was oblivious to both roles back in the day, which is one reason why I am so fascinated with getting a sense of each man's tenure now.