In the early 1970s, a decade after its initial bursts of hip cachet and mass popularity, Marvel Comics was, like the rest of the industry, a victim of flat sales. Artist Jack Kirby, the co-creator of the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and the X-Men, departed for Marvel's chief competition, and editor-writer Stan Lee considered leaving the industry. After a sabbatical to work on a screenplay, Lee returned to Marvel Comics, taking on the role of publisher and president when founder Martin Goodman — who'd sold the company to a conglomerate called Cadence Industries — retired. (Goodman's son Chip stayed behind as editorial director.)
Roy Thomas, Lee's right-hand man in the office since 1965, took the reins as editor, and presided over a revolving door of new talent who'd grown up absorbing the Marvel style and who were eager for work. What did the company have to lose by letting them take a crack at turning around sales? It was, in a more modest way, a repeat of what Hollywood had been experiencing for a few years, after a conflation of big-budget disasters and the successes of Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde convinced the studios that they might as well throw money at scrappy film school graduates and hope for the best. The hard-core comic readers came from all over the country. Among them were Don McGregor, a diminutive, fast-talking, aspiring filmmaker from Rhode Island; Steve Gerber, a chain-smoking Camus obsessive from St. Louis; Gerry Conway, the Brooklyn-born prodigy who'd started writing DC Comics when he was 16; and Steve Englehart, a bearded and bespectacled conscientious objector from Indianapolis.
Change was coming to Marvel Comics.
Stan Lee came into the office a few days a week, and still looked at the covers. But when he wasn't blinking his eyes at balance sheets and charts and annual reports, signing off on thousand-dollar merchandise licensing deals for Marvel characters,1 or getting called into meetings with Cadence chief Sheldon Feinberg, he was speaking at college campuses, or meeting with producers, hoping to get Spider-Man and the Hulk on the big screen. It wasn't long before he grew tired of all the boardroom stuffiness and realized he didn't want to remain president.
It was around that time that Albert Einstein Landau came on the scene. The son of Jewish Telegraphic Agency founder Jacob Landau, and the godson of Albert Einstein, Al Landau ran a photo agency and news syndicate called Transworld Features, which had over the years provided material to Martin Goodman's magazines. Lately he'd been socializing with Chip — they were neighbors on Fire Island — and as soon as Chip introduced him to Feinberg, he worked to ingratiate himself. Landau invited Feinberg to his home for a game of tennis, listed his accomplishments, and proposed ways in which he could improve the business. Perhaps Feinberg saw his own reflection in the short, abrupt, and aggressive Landau. By the time Chip got the news that Stan Lee was stepping down as president, Feinberg had already hired Landau. It was a done deal, and Chip was one step further down the chain of command.
"Chip was very upset about this, as were Martin and Jean," remembered Chip's wife, Roberta. "They thought Al was a total bullshitter. He didn't know anything about the business at all; it wasn't his background. He'd used Chip as a way to get to Shelly [Feinberg], and snuck in between the two of them."
Chip's contract soon expired. The next time that he and Landau had a disagreement, Landau's solution was clear.
"Do you want to be fired or do you want to quit?" he asked Chip.
Although he was no longer president, Lee remained publisher of Marvel Comics — and, once Chip was gone, publisher of the magazines, too. Increasingly, though, it fell to Roy Thomas to bridge the widening gap between business and editorial interests. One of Thomas's first responsibilities as the new editor in chief had been to bring further diversification to the Marvel Universe. As the company's initial attempts to entice a black readership (the Falcon, Luke Cage) sputtered along with middling sales, now a similarly clumsy effort was made to reach female readers, with the launch of three comics ostensibly about feminist empowerment.2 For added authenticity (or gimmickry, depending on one's level of cynicism), each of the three new titles was to be written by a woman. Unfortunately, there was none presently writing for Marvel, so Thomas improvised. He drafted his wife, Jeanie, Hulk artist Herb Trimpe's new wife, Linda Fite, and comic conventioneer Phil Seuling's wife, Carole. Lee came up with all three concepts the same day, and the titles spoke for themselves: Night Nurse, The Claws of the Cat, and Shanna the She-Devil. In the year of Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" and the launch of Ms. magazine, Marvel's tales of candy stripers, cat-suited sexpots, and jungle queens could hardly be called revolutionary.3 (Lee later suggested that the title Night Nurse was a final legacy of his former boss: "Martin Goodman always thought there was something inherently sexy about nurses. I could never get inside his thinking there.") It was a disappointing lineup from the beginning. For Fite, a former Marvel secretary and the only one of the three with writing experience, the problems began with the name of the series she was writing. "Why do we have to name it The Cat, Roy?" she asked. "Is it a catfight?"
Like Luke Cage, the Cat was subjected to medical experiments that gave her super powers. Instead of just super-strength, though, Greer Grant, formerly a docile homemaker, was given an intensified "women's intuition." (Two years later, the character was subjected to radiation, which transformed her into a furry, striped feline named Tigra. Her costume was simply a bikini.) Alas, the message of empowerment was lost on Wally Wood, whom Stan Lee hired to ink the cover of The Cat #1. Wood sent back Marie Severin's pencil art with the heroine's clothes completely removed, and Severin — who'd had more than her fill of boys' club shenanigans over the years — had to white out the Cat's nipples and pubic hair.
Carole Seuling departed Shanna the She-Devil after only a few months, and Thomas handed the reins to Steve Gerber. By the last issue, it seemed that Gerber was using the comic as a platform to question the point of its own existence. Sprawled on a bed in her leopard-skin bikini, reading from Camus' The Stranger, Shanna wonders: "What am I doing here — prancing through the jungle like some 1940s B-movie goddess? I came here to escape the city … its violence … its plastic landscape. So what do I do? Build a treehouse to rival the Plaza — foster a teen-age malt-shop relationship with Patrick! It's too civilized. I should just walk away from it — try living out in the elements — test myself to the limits. At least we'd see if I'm really the superhuman 'she-devil' they call me!"
Night Nurse was saddled with its own problems: At the end of October, upon returning from a weekend in Vermont, Jean Thomas told Roy that she was leaving him. The seeds of marital tensions had been sown early the previous year, when Jean was graduating from Hunter College and looking for work. Lee dangled the idea of a secretarial job and then quickly withdrew the offer. "There were some people at Marvel, never totally revealed to me, who'd felt she'd be a 'spy' for me on the couple of days I wrote at home, so she was frozen out," said Thomas. "Jeanie felt I should've quit. But I had wanted to defer the decision till I'd talked it over with her, and by that time my moment to 'play hero' had passed. I guess, in her mind, I had failed the test by not standing up for her." And in Thomas's mind, his coworkers had failed the test of loyalty. The bloom was off the rose. His feelings about Marvel would never fully recover.
Within nine months, all three of the distaff titles had gotten the ax. "It's kind of a shame," Thomas lamented. "You could get blacks to buy comics about whites, but it was hard to get whites to buy comics in which the main character was black. And it was even harder to get boys to buy comics about women."4 After the initial campaign had failed, the female characters that were introduced in the pages of other titles — Thundra, an angry Femizon in The Fantastic Four; Mantis, a Vietnamese ex-prostitute in The Avengers; and, in Marvel Team-Up, a villainess named Man-Killer — seemed unlikely to emerge as role models.5
Nonetheless, the mandate was to go for "minority" appeal, so in the summer of 1973, as the last issues of Night Nurse and The Cat slunk quietly from the newsstands, they were quickly replaced by redoubled efforts toward a surge in blackness. Luke Cage became a high-profile guest star in Amazing Spider-Man, while in his own title, Marvel delicately reported, "much of Cage's jivin' slang will be eliminated." African-American bad girl Nightshade battled Captain America and the Falcon; Jim Wilson returned to the pages of The Incredible Hulk. For Tomb of Dracula, Marv Wolfman dusted off Blade, a black tinted-goggles-and-bandolier-sporting vampire hunter he'd conceived in the 1960s.6 The biracial buddy western comic Reno Jones and Kid Cassidy: Gunhawks became Reno Jones, Gunhawk when the white half of the team was murdered. The final issues of Shanna the She-Devil introduced Nekra, a mutant albino daughter born to an African-American cleaning lady; her criminality was, unsurprisingly, tied up with heavy identity issues. Other new black characters were filtered through the scrim of international exoticism: In Supernatural Thrillers, Steve Gerber and Rich Buckler introduced N'Kantu, the Living Mummy; Len Wein and John Romita's Haitian witch doctor Brother Voodoo began starring in Strange Tales; and Don McGregor and Rich Buckler brought Black Panther back to his native Wakanda in Jungle Action, a title previously devoted to reprints of white imperialist fantasies from the 1950s.
McGregor had been at his proofreading job for a few months, waiting for a chance at writing a title. One that regularly landed on his desk made him wince. "At that time," he said, "Jungle Action was basically blond jungle gods and goddesses saving the native populace from whatever threat. It was pretty racist stuff, and I couldn't believe Marvel was publishing it." And then suddenly, he was informed that the twenty-year-old potboilers starring Lo-Zar, Tharn the Magnificent, and Jann of the Jungle would be replaced. Jungle Action would now run new adventures of the Black Panther in his native African country of Wakanda — and McGregor would be the writer. "Jungle books didn't sell. I think they figured, 'Well, we'll give Don a jungle book, it'll die and we'll have given him a chance.' "
But the disregarded Jungle Action turned out to be the perfect venue for McGregor's idiosyncratic vision — because it was a lower-tier book, no higher-ups were looking at his work until it was just about out the door, too close to deadline for major changes. With artist Rich Buckler (later replaced by the African-American Billy Graham), McGregor immediately embarked on a dense, thirteen-chapter saga called "Panther's Rage," in which the Black Panther's alter ego, T'Challa, returns to his homeland and faces revolting countrymen who see him as a sellout for hanging out with the Avengers.
Only two years earlier, in an issue of The Fantastic Four, Marvel briefly tried to put distance between the Black Panther and his politically charged namesakes by renaming him Black Leopard. "I neither condemn nor condone those who have taken up the name," T'Challa told the Thing, in a carefully measured bit of expository dialogue. Now McGregor edged the character further into political territory than ever before, and tackled issues of masculinity and patriotism. The gold-chain outfit that T'Challa sometimes paraded around in recalled Isaac Hayes's Wattstax getup, but that had more to do with black America's trendy early 1970s appropriation of traditional African garb than with Jungle Action becoming one more winking blaxploitation farce. McGregor invested deeply in his characters; the gravitas (and extreme wordiness) that he brought to the comic was typified by the description of the Panther's American girlfriend, Monica Lynne ("once she was a songstress … a minor-grade Aretha Franklin … and more recently she spent her days as a social worker … until the words of this quiet, eloquent man convinced her she might learn more about different lifestyles and herself here in this jungle paradise"). But McGregor could also have fun: corralling generous volunteers from the Bullpen, he filled out the back of the book with maps, pinup galleries, and text pieces — otherwise, he knew, that space would be tainted by reprints of the old jungle strips.
The characteristic that most immediately set Jungle Action apart, however, was McGregor's resistance to including white supporting characters, including superhero guest stars. "My feeling was, 'You're dealing with an isolated, hidden African culture. So where were these white people supposed to come from?' " It was the only mainstream American comic book to feature an all-black cast. When the book's sales remained low, that was not a distinction that Marvel had much use for. For a while, though, McGregor's staff position afforded him an extra advantage in greasing the editorial wheels. He even had a deal with his fellow proofreader, Steve Gerber: "You don't edit my books," McGregor said, "and I won't edit yours."
Steve Gerber gladly accepted the offer. He was happy not to be edited; he was virtually unable to work from a staid template. "Oh, great!" he had a teenager snap in the first Marvel comic he wrote. "It's those guys who were bothering us at the head shop!" Dialogue like that never would have made its way into Spider-Man. Gerber got his start toiling in the horror genre, which he found "a crashing bore," but working on the nonsuperhero periphery enabled him to experiment. The tagline for Adventures into Fear — "Whatever knows fear … burns at the touch of the Man-Thing!" — summed up the extent of motivation for its protagonist, a personality-free monster that simply wandered around the swamps of Citrusville, Florida, causing agony to frightened individuals. So when the title was assigned to Gerber, he was forced to look elsewhere for characterization. After establishing that the Citrusville swamp was the "Crossroads of the Universe," he went about building an extensive, and increasingly bizarre, supporting cast: teenagers Jennifer and Andrew Kale; their grandfather Joshua, who belonged to an Atlantean-worshipping cult called Zhered-Na; a sorcerer named Dakimh; a crew of angry construction workers; and Korrek, a barbarian who emerged from a jar of peanut butter. There was Wundarr, a send-up of Superman so dead-on that DC threatened to sue (Lee, frustrated, nearly removed Gerber from the book). And there was a talking duck named Howard, whom Gerber would later describe as having come to him in a trance as he typed at his home in Brooklyn, the sounds of a salsa record wafting from a neighbor's apartment.
Amazingly, this was all conceived without the help of psychedelics. "He was one of those guys who was militant about not altering his consciousness," said Steve Englehart. "Gerber's weirdness came directly from his id." In his early twenties, in St. Louis, Gerber had been on the sidelines of hippie culture, an observer. "I was always too academic, too conscientiously critical, to throw myself into it totally. There seemed to be a certain shallowness of philosophy, somehow, and beyond that, even, there was a lot of violence associated with that culture." This outsider perspective meant that no ideology, left, right, or center, was safe. The Foolkiller, religious-nut vigilante with a "ray of purity" gun; Holden Crane, an obnoxious, rhetoric-spewing student radical; and F. A. Schist, a money-grubbing industrialist — they each met an early doom at Gerber's hands. Where McGregor's writing was passionately serious, Gerber was a born satirist, almost helplessly lampooning every segment of the population. Filling in on an issue of Captain America, he created the Viper, a bad guy whose day job in advertising had left him bitter. "For years," shouted the Viper, "I labored in anonymity, selling other men's products, making other men's fortunes — laying waste to the values and environment of a nation from the privacy of my office … now I've left that grey flannel world behind!" After all the relentlessly earnest civic lectures of the past few years, readers encountering Gerber's weird societal critiques were inclined to do a double take — was this for real?
Before long, he was trying his hand at Iron Man and the Sub-Mariner, and Daredevil, where one story line featured Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner and an angry-hippie villain named Angar who blasted people with bad trips and primal screams. In Marvel Two-in-One, a series that teamed the Thing with various guest stars, Gerber demonstrated that he'd staked out his own corner of the Marvel universe, where he could have Daredevil and Wundarr coexist. Still, Gerber was at his best when he was freed from the constraints of closely watched properties.
When it became clear that Gerber would make a better full-time freelance writer than staffer — his sleep apnea led to restless nights, and so he regularly dozed off at his desk — McGregor welcomed a revolving door of proofreading partners: first Tony Isabella, and then Doug Moench, from Chicago, and then David Anthony Kraft, a seventeen-year-old from Georgia.7 Each of them was a writer as well, and each of them shared an understanding: you leave alone my stuff, and I'll leave alone yours.
Roy Thomas's hands-off, see-what-sticks approach had ushered in Marvel's most unpredictable — and often downright subversive — era. Young creators, eager to refract the superhero world through a prism of boomer values, kept parading through. "It wasn't a corporate environment," said one former Cadence Industries lawyer who'd occasionally visit the offices. "I remember stepping over people sitting in the hall, smoking pot, 'getting inspiration.' "
Artist Jim Starlin, a Detroit-raised greaser and Vietnam veteran who'd survived a helicopter crash in Sicily and explosions in Southeast Asia, created unsmiling, violent superheroes as a form of "anger management" and stuck them in his freelance work. Steve Englehart, who'd buried his best friend from basic training, marinated the stories he wrote in lefty politics. Where Stan Lee, a master fence-sitter, had managed to always stake out a safe middle ground, Starlin, Englehart, and their peers couldn't help but have stronger, and angrier, convictions.
Of course, the new guys weren't going to be allowed anywhere near Amazing Spider-Man or Fantastic Four or The Incredible Hulk or The Mighty Thor — those best-selling titles were reserved for Thomas himself, or for wunderkind Gerry Conway. Those comics were going to stick to their formulas, professionally executed to the point of monotony — and there was no longer any doubt that that was exactly how Stan wanted it. Conway learned this the hard way.
Casting for a way to shake up Amazing Spider-Man, Thomas and Conway had discussed the idea of killing off a member of the supporting cast. Aunt May — elderly, generically kindly, and seemingly always at death's door anyway — was the logical nominee. But when John Romita got wind of the plans, he suggested a different victim: Peter Parker's girlfriend, the lovely Gwen Stacy. Conway thought it was a stroke of genius.
"She was a nonentity, a pretty face," he said. "She brought nothing to the mix. It made no sense to me that Peter Parker would end up with a babe like that who had no problems. Only a damaged person would end up with a damaged guy like Peter Parker. And Gwen Stacy was perfect! It was basically Stan fulfilling Stan's own fantasy. Stan married a woman who was pretty much a babe — Joan Lee was a very attractive blond who was obviously Stan's ideal female. And I think Gwen was simply Stan replicating his wife, just like Sue Storm was a replication of his wife. And that's where his blind spot was. The amazing thing was that he created a character like Mary Jane Watson, who was probably the most interesting female character in comics, and he never used her to the extent that he could have. Instead of Peter Parker's girlfriend, he made her Peter Parker's best friend's girlfriend. Which is so wrong, and so stupid, and such a waste. So killing Gwen was a totally logical if not inevitable choice."
Thomas then cleared the plans with Lee. "He was okay with it to the extent that Stan paid attention to anything," said Conway. "At that time he was primarily interested in expanding the line, asserting his authority as publisher to the higher-ups that owned Marvel, and promoting his own brand and his own career. Once he stopped writing a given comic he stopped thinking about it. And so when he stopped writing Spider-Man, even though he had a proprietary interest in it, really, it was 'Yeah, whatever you want to do.' "
Conway, Romita, and Gil Kane worked out a story in which Green Goblin kidnapped Gwen Stacy and threw her off the top of the George Washington Bridge; in a perverse twist, someone added a "snap!" to the panel in which Spider-Man's web catches Gwen, implying that it was not the fall but whiplash from the catch that caused her neck to snap, that Spider-Man was implicated in the death.
The readership started hyperventilating as soon as the issue hit stands.
"Stan didn't think about it until he went to a college campus and got yelled at by fans," Conway said. "Instead of acting like he was in charge, he said, 'Oh, they must have done it while I was out of town — I would never have done that!' The pretty horrendous backlash that I received from the fan press, and the lack of support I got from Stan, who said we did it behind his back, had a huge impact on me in terms of my emotional state. He basically threw me to the wolves. This was the first time a beloved character had been killed off in comics. I couldn't go to conventions."
"The idea that the three of us together, or even separately, would have tried to sneak in the death of Gwen Stacy without Stan approving it is just so absurd," said Roy Thomas. "Besides, he was never out of town that long." It came back to what Stan had told Roy Thomas, years before: he didn't want to fix what wasn't broken; he only wanted "the illusion of change."
During a speaking engagement at Penn State, Lee was again surprised to learn of a character death; this time, Len Wein had killed a member of The Incredible Hulk's supporting cast. "I told them not to kill too many people," Lee assured the crowd, and promised that Gwen Stacy would return.
Just as Conway was getting used to the idea that he couldn't tweak Marvel's intellectual property, he was also asked to whip up some merchandising synergy. After toy company Azrak-Hamway offered Marvel a licensing deal for a Spider-Man car, Lee handed down a decree to create something called the Spider-Mobile. Conway thought the idea was ridiculous. Why have a hero who could swing through the city on webs get stuck in New York City traffic? In Amazing Spider-Man #126, Conway, annoyed, had a pair of sleazy suits approach Spider-Man and ask him to drive their prototype, for publicity. They looked a little bit like Lee and Thomas, and the address on the business card they handed Spider-Man was 575 Madison Avenue — Marvel's address.
Conway had hardly been the picture of the rebel — while Jim Starlin and Steve Englehart were trying to translate their psychedelic experiences into four-color adventures, Conway blamed Norman Osborn's relapse into his Green Goblin identity (and his subsequent murder of Gwen Stacy) on his son Harry's bad LSD trips. But Conway began sliding a patina of political content into his work. Drawing inspiration from Don Pendleton's popular Executioner novels, Conway created a new character called the Punisher. Like Pendleton's Mack Bolan, the Punisher was a Vietnam War veteran who exacted revenge on the mob after it murdered members of his family. But where Bolan — lusty, unrepentantly vicious, and charmless — was cast as a hero, Conway framed the Punisher as a paranoid and dangerous, if somewhat sympathetic, antagonist. It was the vigilante adventure as cautionary tale.
Conway reserved his greatest scorn not for Doctor Octopus or the Kingpin but for newly created bad guys who'd sold out their left-wing compatriots, like Ethiopian supervillain Moses Magnum (who, a caption revealed, had once made a deal with Mussolini), the onetime South American revolutionary known as the Tarantula (who betrayed his fellow rebels to a dictator's army), and the French villain Cyclone, a NATO engineer who'd begun developing weapons on the side.
These flourishes may have sailed over the heads of Spider-Man's adolescent readership. But soon after Stan Lee rapped his knuckles for writing Gwen Stacy's death, the twenty-year-old Conway found the next-best way to traumatize legions of twelve-year-olds, this time in the pages of The Fantastic Four: divorce proceedings for Reed and Sue Storm. Decades later, novelist Rick Moody would describe the story line in The Ice Storm, his roman à clef about familial disintegration: "Sue Richards, née Storm, the Invisible Girl, had been estranged from her husband, Reed Richards. With Franklin, their mysteriously equipped son, she was in seclusion in the country. She would return only when Reed learned to understand the obligations of family, those paramount bonds that lay beneath the surface of his work."8 (They would later reconcile.)