The Great American
                Novel Act 1:
                the danger Act 2: rising action Act 3: the ball Act 4: crisis Act 5: triumph the Franklinverse part 2, act 1:
                the new danger

the rise and
      fall of the Marvel Universe

The Marvel Universe = growth and change

The Marvel Universe was not just a collection of characters. Every publisher had that. The Marvel Universe was something different:

"A series of titles where events in one book would have repercussions in another title and serialized stories would show characters' growth and change." (Wikipedia, emphasis added)

Before 1961 this type of universe did not exist. Superman and Batman would sometimes team up, but those events would soon be forgotten and would never change the status quo. After 1991 this type of universe did not exist: Spider-man and Wolverine would sometimes team up, but those events would soon be forgotten and would never change the status quo. This page shows how and when the Marvel Universe died. In brief, Marvel Time destroyed the Marvel Universe by preventing permanent change.

The biggest story ever told

Most comic stories are over in a month, or a year at most. The Marvel Universe allowed stories that lasted thirty years. You could watch a character develop. You could follow a minor character or a subplot, and know that, even if they were ignored for a few months, their story would continue when another writer decided to take them up again. Every event was informed by everything that went before. But skilled writers made it transparent, so every issue was also satisfying to new readers. Perhaps the best example was the early Claremont-Byrne X-Men: full of hints of a complex back story that gave every event incredible depth. The new reader didn't always know what was going on, but boy, he wanted to find out!

The Marvel Universe simply gave you a bigger story. It attracted people like me, people who like the big story. It kept people buying comics even in the years when not much happened, because you cared about these people.

"The consistency of Marvel continuity over forty-some years is not just a means of keeping nostalgic Baby Boomers with long memories happy. Properly seen, the Marvel canon, from Fantastic Four #1 in 1961 onward, is a grand epic saga, spreading through thousands of interconnected stories. Former Marvel writer Peter Gillis once said that it was the largest collection of interrelated stories since the mythos of King Arthur [edit: actually far, far larger]. This is an achievement with its own aesthetic grandeur and beauty. Moreover, throughout the decades, each writer has built upon the work of his predecessors. Just think over what I have told you about the evolution of the Squadron Supreme from Thomas to Englehart to Gruenwald, from a one-dimensional joke to three-dimensional personalities embroiled in serious philosophical issues. Over time, and through development by the better writers, characters grow in psychological depth, they become more distinct as individual personalities, and their personal histories grow rich in significant events that can spark ideas in writers for new directions in which to take these characters. A fictional world whose characters remain the same quickly turns stagnant; a world in which they are allowed to change and develop is a fictional world that retains its vitality, evolves with the times, and stimulates creativity." (Peter Sanderson,  Comics in Context #14, Continuity/Discontinuity. Emphasis added.)

Great individual stories are still being written

This page is not intended as an insult to current stories being published by Marvel. Marvel still publishes great short stories from time to time. So does every other publisher. But Marvel used to offer something extra, an overarching continuity called the Marvel Universe. This bigger story ended in 1991 (as we shall see).

The original plan: onwards and upwards!

Stan Lee's motto, "Excelsior," or onwards and upwards, represents the excitement and power of early Marvel. It was going somewhere! It was moving forwards! As the Bullpen Bulletins page often said, "Marvel is on the move again!" As Chris Claremont recalls,

"DC’s theory was that you cycled through an audience every three years. Stan’s revolutionary concept was, Why not just keep moving ahead?"

1968: financial success brings fear of change

By 1968, financial success meant that Stan (and of course Martin Goodman) did not want to change anything. In 1968, fans started to notice that the family no longer progressed as quickly as normal people and the phrase Marvel Time was first used. Regarding late 1968, Sean Howe writes:

"For the last year or two, Lee had conveyed to his writers that marvel's stories should have only 'the illusion of change,' that the characters should never evolve too much, lest their portrayals conflict with what licensees had planned for other media." -"Marvel Comics: The Untold Story" p.101

 Ironically, this didn't prevent characters: without change they lost their selling power, plus Marvel Time meant destroying the old stories. This is because the past must be constantly revised in order to maintain the illusion that only a few years have passed.

history is being

1968: writers actively hold back new ideas

Roy Thomas could see how Kirby was frustrated. He did not want to be like Kirby, seeing his ideas ripped off, with no reward for his hard work. Thomas was the first of a new generation of writers who would happily develop existing characters but never contribute significant characters of their own. See "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story" by Sean Howe, p.99-101.

For more details see the page on 1968

1972: the first "we don't care any more" title

Over the years Marvel has often published stories simply because they sell, even though they make the Marvel Universe less believable. The first and biggest example of this is "Marvel Team "up" where Spider-Man met a different character each month, without any organic reason for doing so, and against what his character represented.

"Roger Stern used to say the real Spider-Man, and, indeed, the real Marvel, ended with the publication of MARVEL TEAM-UP 1. Spider-Man, the eternal outcast, the loner, teaming up every month with a different character. The very notion of the team-up rendered ordinary. There was a lot of good stuff that came along after MTU 1, but with every passing year I fear Rog's pronouncement becomes more and more true." - John Byrne

1973: the death of Gwen Stacy

Probably the most famous event in the end of the Silver Age was the death of Gwen Stacy in Amazing Spider-Man 121, in 1973. As the editors explained in a letter in issue 125, their purpose was to artificially prevent natural development. The obvious next step for Spider-Man was to marry and be happy, and that could not be allowed because he had to be kept the same forever. So Gwen had to die. Fans complained, and rather than blaming the decision to interfere, Stan decided that the fans don't want change of any kind.

1974: "that famous meeting." From change to "the illusion of change."

Alan Moore (in 1983, writing in Daredevils issue 4) recalled what happened:

"You see, somewhere along the line, one of the newer breed of Marvel editors... maybe it was Marv Wolfman, maybe it was someone else, had come up with one of those incredibly snappy sounding and utterly stupid little pieces of folk-wisdom that some editors seem to like pulling out of the hat from time to time. This particular little gem went something as follows; “Readers don’t want change. Readers only want the illusion of change.” Like I said, it sounds perceptive and well-reasoned on first listening. It is also, in my opinion, one of the most specious and retarded theories that it has ever been my misfortune to come across."

Gene Phillips, of the Archetypal Archive blog, recalls a discussion in The Comics Journal 63 (1981):

"[Steve] Englehart, who first came to work for Marvel in 1971, described a change in Marvel's editorial priorities "around '74," which led, in 1976, to at least three talents leaving Marvel at that time: himself, Jim Starlin, and Paul Gulacy. When Kim Thompson inquires as to what editorial restrictions were being promulgated, Englehart said: "Well, just "don't be so bizarre. try not to progress so fast." There's that famous meeting that happened before the quitting time when Stan said, "I don't want progress; I want the illusion of progress now. We don't want people dying and coming out of the strips [a reference to the death of Gwen Stacy], we don't want new girlfriends, we want to try to keep it the same."

By 1976 Gerry Conway was talking (sadly) about Marvel expecting to cycle through a generation of fans every three years: nothing was to change. ("Marvel Comics: The Untold Story" p.178)   

1975: stretching time causes tension

Marvel Time became more and more significant as more time passed. Story development was banned, and old stories were changed. "As early as 1975, Roy Thomas was referring to Korea rather than W.W.II for Reed's army days" (source) Time stretched more and more, like a rubber band. The more that Marvel Time is used, the worse the results. Eventually, like an over-stretched rubber band, it had to break, and the Marvel Universe (the universe of connected stories that built on each other) broke with it. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's continue our walk through the 1970s:

Late 1970s: homogenization

By attempting to preserve the old there was no space for the new. Steve Gerber, possibly Marvel's most original creator of the 1970s, saw the results. He refused to play ball, and was dismissed in 1978. He had this to say:

"Right now I think the general trend, the main thrust of Marvel's whole editorial policy is homogenization, to make everything so much like everything else as humanly possible.

Q: I guess their strategy is that if it worked once, it will again — or still.

A. Very sound reasoning. I mean, nothing else has changed since the 1950s, has it? Why should comic books? Speaking of movies again, there's now what I call the Peter Bogdanovich syndrome, where ­—

Q. It sounds horrible.

A. Yeah. It amounts to a vain and futile attempt to recapture past glories. Nova is an example. Nova was supposed to be cast in the old mold of the early 1960s Marvel Comics, and it bears no resemblance whatsoever to those books. It's basically a fan's interpretation of what those books were like. To compare Nova with the early Ditko or Romita Spider-Man is fatuous. All the evocative elements are completely lost. It's an attempt, again, to formularize what was done in the early '60s. Every attempt at that has fallen just short of pathetic. What can I tell you? Nova is one particular book; there are others. Nova, strangely, when it first appeared, had its own interesting charm about it. I liked the first couple of issues. And then the degeneration was rampant and apparently irreversible. It didn't fool anybody."

1980s: stretching time until it breaks

The 7 year rule, then the 13 year rule,k then even that doesn't work
"By the 80s, you see a shift beginning to take place, simply due to the fact that the books have run so long. It was during this period that the 'seven year rule' was first devised, which postulated that it had been perhaps seven years since FANTASTIC FOUR #1 in story time, regardless of how many real-world years had passed.  This meant that things would be updated on a rolling basis: the Fantastic Four were no longer trying to be the first ones to reach the moon, they were testing an interstellar warp engine And so forth. But at the same time, Mark Gruenwald’s invention and perfection of the Official handbook of the Marvel Universe attempted to codify everything in the Marvel cosmology, and taught entire generations of fans to think about these stories in that way. Eventually, as time moved on, more and more people became comfortable with the fact that it wasn’t always going to be possible to maintain absolutely every fact that was being dragged around behind the Marvel Universe for fifty years. All of those stories about our heroes battling Communist villains, for example, became a problem after the fall of the Soviet Union—it’s been so long since that event that even though the 'seven year rule' has now expanded to something closer to thirteen years, still none of that stuff works." - Tom Brevoort

1987: the loss of Jim Shooter

The final nail in the coffin was the loss of Jim Shooter. Shooter presided over the most successful period of Marvel's history since Stan Lee. Why? There may be many reasons, but for our present purposes let's just focus on one: Shooter cared about continuity. Look at his New Universe or his other comic companies (Valiant, Broadway, etc.): continuity matters. But Shooter was forced out. The bad feeling toward him is legendary. When he left, John Byrne famously sang "Ding Dong The Witch is Dead!" In the New Universe comics (already crippled by near zero funding) they blew up his home town, Pittsburgh. They closed down most of the new titles he started: New Mutants, Marvel Fanfare, Power Pack, Avengers Spotlight, Cloak and Dagger, etc. X-Factor survived but was turned into a completely different book. Everything associated with Shooter, the man who loved continuity, became anathema. In the years that followed Marvel raced in every direction at once, without any steadying hand on the tiller, and destroyed itself in the process.

Everyone saw the destruction coming

People knew that the death of the Marvel Universe was coming. They even made a comic parodying it - "Fred Hembeck Destroys the Marvel Universe." It was originally going to be titled "Jim Shooter Destroys the Marvel Universe" but senior management vetoed that name. Ironically, the death was caused by radical ideas that Jim Shooter himself suggested, but without Shooter there to rule with an iron hand the radical ideas just caused chaos. This is how it happened:

In 1983 Jim Shooter suggested radical ideas. At the time, Doug Moench was a freelance. Freelancers are famous for only seeing part of the story because they work from home. As Christopher Priest warns, it is very easy to give the wrong impression over the telephone:

"A freelancer sitting out in Oshkosh somewhere is very vulnerable and nearly always paranoid. I said, "Please stop [doing some minor thing]" but [the freelancer] likely heard, "I hate you and I hate what you do."

That happened with Doug Moench. Shooter suggested some radical ideas to kill some characters and change others. Moench thought he intended to destroy the whole Marvel Universe, and told everyone. His warnings were published in Cat Yronwode's "Fit to Print" column in "The Buyer's Guide To Comics Fandom" which everyone in the industry read back then. So Fred Hembeck then wrote the parody (which for various reasons was not published until 1989).

Radical + continuity = good

These are the radical ideas that Shooter put into place while he was still at Marvel: Someone else found Thor's Hammer, Captain America was replaced by someone else, someone else wore Iron Man's armor, the Fantastic Four lineup changed, and Spider-Man changed his costume. All of these things were done in such a way that they appeared natural and did not harm continuity.

Radical + poor continuity = bad

Another of Shooter's radical ideas was to replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man, but Shooter was kicked out before he could implement it. It may be coincidence, but that idea was used a couple of years later, and it was handled disastrously: the Spider-Man Clone Saga is still a by-word for bad comics. But perhaps the worst result of all these radical changes is that writers decided it was now acceptable to do crazy things, but without a continuity nut like Shooter to stop them going too far. Fred Hembeck sums up the result:

"Thus, a trend of radically rewriting comics history was established, and most older fans have become so inured to the revamping their childhood icons have had to endure over the past two decades that most can't muster up enough energy to care, myself definitely included. But in 1983 the idea was so outrageous that it merited an all out spoof."

Older fans saw what was happening and they complained

Mark Gruenwald (Marvel's continuity man) wrote in 1992:

"Occasionally I get letters from readers who began their Marvel habit in the 60s and 70s who say that in their opinion the spirit of the Marvel Universe has died. It just got so distended, they say, so stretched out about the edges, so threadbare in areas, and overly dense and complicated in other areas that it's just not the fun place it used to be. Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, but obviously I disagree. ... For my money, the sandbox known as the Marvel Universe has many healthy years ahead of it, and properly maintained, we'll never have to resort to any kind of wholesale implosion or continuity-shredding to keep it from collapsing under its own poorly distributed weight."

Sadly that was exactly what was happening, even as he wrote. Continuity was shredded, the universe was not maintained, and soon after Marvel suffered a wholesale implosion (titles cut, sales collapse) because of its own poorly distributed weight. At first the chaos seemed exciting and sales rose. But by 1996 everyone realized that the stories were just gimmicks and the party was over.

1989: an end to what made Marvel unique

Notice that this illusion of change is the opposite of real change. Steve Englehart observed how real change was banned, circa 1989. Read about it here, here, here, here and here. Some choice quotes:

"At this point, Marvel made its infamous decision that innovation should end. [...] I took my name off [the Fantastic Four] altogether, opting for the pseudonym I'd created years before for work I didn't want to be associated with: 'John Harkness.' ... Marvel was consciously cutting back on 'unique,' a move that would drive out their big-name creators, lead the company to bankruptcy, and drag down the entire industry. ... Unfortunately, Marvel has never rectified itself, and now sells one-tenth of what these books sold."

Click here for more about the end of the Marvel Universe Fantastic Four.

1988+: writing quality declines

When Shooter was kicked out, Marvel also lost some of its best writers, and not just Steve Englehart. As Shooter recalls:

Shooter: "After I left, they almost systematically got rid of the writers. Roger Stern, Michelinie, Chris Claremont for Christ's sake."

MDT: "They all went over to DC."

Shooter : "DeMatteis, Louise Simonson. It's like they got rid of the writers one at a time, so the artists were writing the book. P.S. That didn't get any press. Nobody cares when the writers get squashed."

The devaluing of writing reached a peak with the Image effect: many of the the most profitable artists left Marvel to form Image comics. The focus at Image was on art (as the name suggests), and writing was almost an afterthought. To some extent Marvel followed the trend. The 1990s had the worst comic writing in living memory. Even the good writers turned in poor work. As one fan recalls,

"Guys like Claremont, Byrne, Miller, Simonson, Micheline, Stern, Mantlo, deMatteis, all were at the top of their game under Jim Shooter's watch. Is it a coincidence that many of these creators devolved into indulgent parodies of themselves when they had more 'creative freedom' after Shooter left?"

From 1989: death is no longer meaningful

From the beginning, Marvel comics were famous for meaningful deaths. Sure, villains often died and came back, but heroes stayed dead. Earl Wells identifies the heroic death as one way that you can distinguish Stan Lee's work from someone else's ("Once And For All, Who Was The Author of Marvel," The Comics Journal 181). In the early days, Franklin Storm, the Gargoyle, Wonder Man, Al Harper, etc. all died in heroic sacrifices. The comic sometimes voted the greatest ever - Fantastic Four 51, This Man, This Monster - ends in heroic sacrifice. Every comic reader from the 1970s can remember Gwen Stacy's death. Death were permanent (though occasionally a clone or impostor would pretend to be the dead person). Death had a huge impact, because it really mattered, and the possibility of death made all other dangers meaningful.

But Marvel Time means permanent change is anathema. Readers who grew up on Marvel Time expect nothing to seriously change, and when something changes they want it back the way it was! In 1983 Elektra came back from the dead. The cracks were beginning. In 1986 Phoenix came back (perhaps that name made it inevitable). Then after Shooter left the dam burst.

"Up till that point [the return of Phoenix], there were a decent number of characters whose deaths were so seminal that they were considered dead permanently. But once such a major one as Jean Grey's was overturned (with the blessing of the EIC at that), then the floodgates started to open, and other people tested the waters. And we got some good stories of some important dead characters, but we also got a lot of mediocre ones, and an overall feeling that death is transitory. That wasn't always the case in Marvel comics."

- Tom Brevoort

Why 1989, not 1986?

Although Phoenix came back in 1986, it was only after years of persuading Jim Shooter that the story made sense. So the floodgates did not open. But after Shooter left, editors were far more likely to approve resurrections, as you can see from this list. This is an incomplete list of dates for resurrections - the real list is probably endless.

Death has become such a rapidly revolving door that even the comic characters themselves joke about it (see Wikipedia: Comic Book Death).

Without the possibility of meaningful death, and with Marvel Time ensuring that nothing else really changes, drama is almost impossible.

After 1989: no more great stories

The greatest stories in Marvel history are immortalized in the Marvels series by Kurt Busiek. Marvels 1 gave us the greatest stories of all, up to 1973, the death of Gwen Stacey and the year when real time was abandoned. Marvels 2 then gives us the greatest stories since then - and goes as far as 1989. Since then we have 21 years and many more books per month. Have they produced any great stories? Great stories require great changes to a character, and those can only be temporary: Stories that appeared great at the time - like Kraven's Last Hunt or the Death of Aunt May - could not appear in Marvels III because they have since been retconned, as all new stories must be eventually, thanks to Marvel Time.

EDIT: a reader replies:

In response to this, I would like to submit the following: Daredevil vol. 2, specifically from Brian Michael Bendis's run (beginning with issue #26) through "Shadowland," the final story of the volume.

However, in submitting Daredevil as a character about whom great stories have been told, I feel that I should clarify that these stories were so because they ignored many of the conventions of what you call the Franklinverse: the status quo was not god; characters were allowed to grow and change due to their accumulated experiences; time passed, if not in real time, then at a definitive, measurable, and consistent rate; and each individual story had consequences that, rather than limiting the stories that followed it, opened up otherwise unexplorable possibilities. Case in point: the volume begins with the death of Karen Page, Matt Murdock's single consistent love interest since Daredevil vol. 1 #1 in 1964. The only precedent for such a change was the death of Gwen Stacy in 1973, and even she was a much more recent addition to Spider-Man's cast of characters.

BUT, Karen Page's death allowed new love interests to appear and be explored (such as Milla Donovan, who actually married Matt Murdock, something that has only happened once before in the Franklinverse -- and then, to Scott Summers and Jean Grey, who had been a couple since 1963). Karen's death also marked the beginning of a long period where the universe just would not cut Matt Murdock a break, eventually leading Foggy Nelson to question Daredevil's sanity and conclude that his friend was suffering a nervous breakdown.

Not only this, but the comic evolved to a point where major changes were possible once again. Matt Murdock was outed as Daredevil, but it wasn't an imaginary story, nobody's memory was erased, and Matt never managed to cleverly "prove" that the story was untrue. He was outed; now, everybody knows the truth. He even served jail time for it. That will never be undone (or, at least, was not undone in the rest of the volume). And over the course of this run, Matt's accumulated mental stresses eventually do reach a breaking point, a point that was predicted all the way back in Guardian Devil, issues #1-8 of this volume. It is a single, cohesive story with a beginning, middle, and end.

I grew up with this comic. Even when I was grown and had been exposed to older material (in general, I have grown to share your view that the quality of Marvel's output dropped precipitously between 1988 and 1991 and then remained at that low point), I still love this comic. Daredevil is, to me, exactly what every Marvel book should be. It is a clear example of a book that embraces its own continuity and suffers no ill-effects for doing so.

- Thomas Wardlow

Examples of problems

Here are examples of how Marvel stories no longer connect to the past or each other in any meaningful way (my apologies to the original author, I copied the text and missed your name):

"For instance, one of the most long-running mysteries of the Marvel universe has been Wolverine’s mysterious past, and how he himself has never been able to figure it all out, due to various false memory implants and blocks and whatnot. Now, thanks to House of M, for the first time he remembers his entire life. You would expect this to be a rather big deal, wouldn’t you? But no, outside of his ongoing title, it has not been mentioned again since House of M. Not in the New Avengers, where he appears in every issue, nor in the X-titles, where he also appears. "There are also such fun things as Warren Ellis’ new run of Iron Man, who seems to have only the artificial trappings of the normal Tony Stark, and could easily be considered a What If? story itself if not for how it’s supposedly meant to be in continuity. Then there’s just general madness like Grant Morrison’s run on X-Men, where he threw everything he could think up into the story lines just to see what could work there (examples: Beast suddenly being gay, then not, or Colossus dying heroically, then Morrison realizing he needed Colossus for an upcoming story so he invents “secondary mutations” in all mutants so that he can give the White Queen Colossus-like powers, and then Joss Whedon coming along later and deciding to bring Colossus back to life anyway). Again, as said before: confusing the audience is not the best way to keep the company going. Indeed, if anything, all this manages to do is convince us to stop caring about any of the characters or stories, because we know that in another year or so, the character will be completely changed or the story will have suddenly happened differently than it did, or may not have happened at all."

Contradictions are often blatant. For example, the Marvel Knights Fantastic Four takes place in the Marvel Universe, yet contradict each other. One has a five year old Franklin, another has an nine year old, one is poor, another is rich. As CyberCoyote said on the comicboards forum,

"I very much enjoyed the pot shots they took at one another. Reed made a speech in a RAS [Roberto Aguirre Sacasa, Marvel Knights] issue explaining that he didn't have some 'Magic Eraser' to fix everything: referring to the Afterlife story with Kirby as God. Waid [Mark Waid, regular FF] ridiculed the whole 'FF are broke' story line by showing that Reed could recoup massive losses by spending 4 minutes of his time to whip up commercial hot cakes like cures for acne."

Consistency is dead, and contradictions are everywhere. For example, as of 2010, Spider-Man was officially never married, despite decades of stories that said he was (and despite a newspaper strip where he still is). Peter and Mary Jane had a baby, and what happened to her? Nobody cares. But once again I am racing ahead. Let's go back to 1991 and see how the Marvel Universe finally died:

Tim Hansen, long time Hulk fan, wrote to describe how old green skin changed:

Original Hulk
The original Bruce Banner a happy childhood. The Hulk was not a part of Banner's personality at all, but a separate being. We know this because the psychiatrist Doc Samson analysed banner and the Hulk at great length, even spending some time literally inside the Hulk's mind. There was only one Hulk, who loved animals and nature, and only used his strength out of confusion and frustration. But that changed in the mid and late 1980s .

"In Hulk #226 [1978], Hulk gets a flashback from Banner's school days, where he and his old girlfriend Sally is on love. Not something you would expect from the shy bookworm Banner is portrayed as later. The therapy with Samson happened in Hulk #226. This is when Samson actually entered Hulk's mind, seeing and remembering what Hulk saw and remembered, and there were no parent issues. Another flashback show us the genius Bruce making a mistake in the chemistry lab at highschool. It's in that issue where Samson says 'Banner and Hulk are not just two sides of the same mind, they are actually two different beings.' In Hulk #247 [1980], Hulk has a flashback about Banner standing at his parents' grave, saying "Farewell, mom, dad. I miss you dearly." - Tim Hansen

New Hulk
The new Banner had an abused childhood, there are many Hulks, generally on a theme of mindless violence (and most are physically much larger), and are all part of Banner's split personality.

"Starting with Hulk #292 [1984]. Banner starts having nightmares about a dark Hulk appearing in his dreams. The demon Nightmare has created a new Hulk based on Banner's fears, a Hulk that has nothing to do with previous incarnations. From then we gradually see more and more Hulks: yellow demon Hulk, red Hulk, gray Hulk, old Hulk, young Hulk, professor Hulk, mindless Hulk, Hulking, you name it. At this point I pretty much stopped reading Hulk. Partly because of the constant changes, new Hulks that had only the name and skin color in common with the old character"

1991: the original Marvel Universe dies

Tony, of The Original Marvel Universe, described this period in detail. This is a highly edited version, used by kind permission.

"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. "It was in 1991 that the editors at Marvel Comics decided that the characters had evolved too far from their beginnings and that not only was there to be no more character development, but much of the previous character development was to be undone. Therefore, Wolverine, for example, who had just spent 15 years overcoming his savage animal instincts to become a man with a deep sense of honor, was summarily returned to square one – even being put back in his original yellow and blue costume (which he’d abandoned in 1980) – to symbolize the undoing of all character development! Now that’s just cheeky. Spider-Man’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson was busted up, because kids apparently couldn’t relate to a Spidey who had a wife and was a grown-up. Eventually they even made him 16 years old again.

"Torturous story lines were introduced to explain away inconvenient events, such as one in The Fantastic Four where Alicia Masters Storm – the Thing’s former girlfriend, now wife of the Human Torch – was revealed to be a shape-changing alien. The real Alicia knew nothing of this marriage, and hey, presto! – she and the Thing could continue the same tragic love affair that had long ago exhausted its story potential." The chaos continues: Peter's parents are synthoid things; Fake Aunt May; Teen Doctor Strange; Maximum Carnage; Tentacle Callisto; New origins for Hulk and Spider-Man that are quickly ignored; Simonson's Doom, Slott's She-Hulk, Jones' Hulk and Davis' Clan Destine saying stories they don't like never happened; Nightcrawler Is a real Demon; Gwen Stacy Slept With Norman Osborn and had twins, which Osborn trained to become assassins to hunt down Spider-Man; Wolverine is Sabertooth's son, then not a mutant but a Lupine, then able to regenerate from a single cell; the Summers family tree, so infamous that it's an official "TV Tropes" trope name: e.g. Cable has two moms: Jean and Madelynne. They are both biological to him, and Nathan Summers is older than his own dad. Then what of Spider-man, avatar of The Spider God, with wrist stingers, a poisonous bite, the ability to talk to arthropods, and night vision; One More Day; the list goes on and on. Marvel gave up all serious attempts at continuity. "

The editors have given up

Even the editors have given up. As Tom Brevoort said in answer to a question:

Q. "Hi Tom you answered the xorn/magneto question wrong: Kuan-Yin Xorn impersonated Magneto and was convinced he was, until he died. His brother, Shen Xorn later met the X-Men, was later depowered, and later the dominant of the Collective going after Magneto."

A. "That's fine, really, who can keep this mess straight?"


By decoupling Reed Richards and Ben Grimm from WWII they have suddenly become younger. Franklin has got older then younger. Johny Storm looks and acts younger after Englehart left. The purpose of One More Day was to make Spider-Man appear younger. De-aging has become the norm. Tom Brevoort doesn't even pretend that time goes forwards: yes, characters do de-age

Q: "How old is Emma Frost?"

A: "In all of her earliest stories she's clearly older than the majority of the X-Men she's dealing with. She only got younger over time, Rogue-style."

Official policy: ignore any problems

Rather than fix problems, official policy is to now ignore them, as these examples illustrate:

"Outside of the Internet, if you were just reading AMAZING SPIDER-MAN for the past two years, you'd have no idea that he was ever married, or that Mephisto was involved. It's you lot online that keep bringing it up, not us."

- Tom Brevoort

"This [Peter's baby] is a storyline that hasn't been mentioned in print for about 15 years now, and I don't expect that to change in the slightest moving ahead."

- Tom Brevoort again

Q: "What is or what WILL be the status of the Gwen Stacy clone that's still alive?

A: "Her status will likely be the same as her status has been for years now: out there somewhere, not bothering anybody or being referred to."

- Tom Brevoort again

This puts Marvel back into the pre-universe days. Remember 1950s DC? If any story seemed crazy, it didn't matter: it would be ignored in later stories. Marvel today is the same.

Q: [about a controversial story] ... Do you think this could compromise the integrity of the character?"

A: any single story doesn't do anything to "the integrity of the character." ... ignore the stories you don't care for.

- Kurt Busiek

This presupposes that stories have no effect on later stories: it presupposes the death of the Marvel Universe.

1991: the death of the No-Prize

The last defense against continuity chaos was always the No-Prize. No matter how chaotic the stories become, readers were encouraged to find solutions, those solutions became official, and they won a prize. That all changed in 1991. The No-Prize was not officially banned - that would be too unpopular - but it was watered down until it became meaningless. This is from Wikipedia:

"By 1989, Marvel was owned by Ronald Perelman, the man who would eventually drive Marvel into bankruptcy. One of the first casualties of the new financial belt-tightening was the No Prize, considered in one memo to be 'a silly, expensive extravagance to mail out.'

"In 1991, then-Marvel editor-in-chief Tom DeFalco reinstated the No-Prize, introducing the 'meritorious service to Marvel above and beyond the call of duty' criteria: 'What constitutes 'meritorious service'? Lots of things could! Like sending a box of comics to the children's wing of a hospital. Or compiling a chronological cross-title index to a character's appearance. Or coming up with an explanation for a major discontinuity or discrepancy."

In theory the No-Prize still included a category for fixing mistakes, but it was no longer focused. As later stories showed, nobody really cared about continuity any more.

In 1991, Marvel institutionalized short term thinking

"Marvel became the first comic book publisher to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1991"

(source) A privately owned company can think long term, if the owner understands the business. But a publicly owned business, particularly one built on unsustainable debt (as perelman's was), always has to make short term profits. Short term thinking will always favor quick gimmicks over long term characterization. The early 1990s was famous for its gimmicks - characters dying and being reborn, comics published in multiple metallic covers, and publishing so many comics that the editors didn't care as much about each one.

After 1991

The interference that Englehart identified seems to have run riot as Marvel imploded and they tried to recreate the universe they had just destroyed. As one insider recalls:

"I can't say for sure how things are going at Marvel and DC now, but the mid-'90s became a festival of second-guessing and dictating story lines. Often, the editorial mindset was "Here's what we want to do, make it work," and then the parameters would keep changing as this consideration or that came into play. It also emphasized an official fixation on "universe building," conveniently forgetting that the most successful "universe" in the history of comics, the Marvel Universe, really came about by accident and accumulation, by people like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Roy Thomas and various others throwing this idea or that out there without much concern for the big picture."

Wikipedia notes: "Another common Marvel practice of this period was regular company-wide crossovers that threw the universe's continuity into disarray."

John Seavey recalls that the creative chaos got worse when Ron Perelman bought the company:

"Purges, reorganizations, sales 'targets' that were absurd, demands made by the marketing department onto editorial...really, it was a period where editing for Marvel was like sticking your hand into a piranha tank."

With nowhere to go, Marvel published more and more comics in the popular X-Men and Spider-man franchises, and then began multiple versions of the same characters. We had Heroes Reborn, Ultimates, 2099, 1602, Zombie, Marvel Adventures, and endless out-of-continuity miniseries. Tony concludes:

"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 any more. 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?”

Attempts at great in-universe stories after 1991

Attempts to write great stories after 1991 illustrate the problem. Thunderbolts showed character development, but only by using second tier villains. Runaways was another attempt to write compelling stories, and it worked - but only by using completely new characters and not tying them in closely to the regular comics. Existing heroes or first tier villains are tied too closely to merchandising and so can never change.

1993: early Marvel is openly mocked

In Alan Moore's miniseries "1963" famously recast early Marvel in a condescending tone. The pastiche was affectionate, and expertly done, but definitely portrayed early 1960s comics as primitive and something we should move beyond.

1996: widespread acceptance that continuity is dead

Although continuity was dead by 1991, Marvel still paid lip service to it. But in 1996 four events marked the widespread acceptance that continuity does not matter:

  1. Mark Gruenwald died.
    Mark was always the go-to guy for defending and understanding Marvel's past. Walt Simonson's Time Variance Authority people all looked like Mark: an affectionate nod that even then continuity was seen as an irritation. But Mark was always there to try to hold the pieces together... until 1996.
  2. Marvel went bankrupt
    While this was more of a result than a cause (and the final papers weren't officially filed until January 1997), it is fair to say it was a decisive mental break with the past: Marvel editors were not thinking of the stories, they were thinking of keeping their jobs and what desperate measures they could take to ensure something sold for another month.
  3. Heroes Reborn
    Continuity was simply dumped and many of the top characters were simply rebooted.
  4. Amalgam Comics
    The first (along with heroes Reborn) of a number of alternate versions of the characters. Amalgam comics merged DC and Marvel characters, showing that really they were not so different. Jonathan Nolan calls this "DC-itis" and writes:

"I've always thought the Amalgam Universe was very cool on its own but seen in the context of its struggle between red and blue "brothers", and the timing of its appearance at the height of the second half of the 90s, its creation of the Access character who is somewhat of a Franklinoid character again- the latest in a long line of amalgamation power characters- with his ability to create crossovers - this marks when the pure blood of marvel was permanently infected by DC-itis incurably.

At the time it just seemed like another money milker but just as 1968 was the death of real time, 1973 marked the point where the terminal illness was obvious to all, 1989 marked the final extinction of real time stories, 1996-1997 and the amalgamation and crossover epidemic marks the point where Marvel really has become the "brother" of DC- not a fresh bold new replacement, not a harbinger of new realities and new approaches- but a creature indistinguishable from its "brother" except one is red and one is blue. This was truer than anyone intended, and seen in that unflattering light it is not cool but rather highly disturbing that with so little effort Marvel and DC can be combined into a single slurry of merged characters! The original Fantastic Four couldn't possibly become the Challengers of the Fantastic because the original FF stories were a series of events within a history locked away in continuity pinned to "real world" events in our world's history. The essence of the amalgam characters, much as I love some of them, the real essence is that they are so blandly fan-service oriented as to be cartoons. Caricatures.

Access should have become the single most powerful being in either universe, and DC certainly is forever in need of someone like him since they have pulled off the biggest con in comics history- pretending that 75+ predatory years of absorbing other people's characters then never using them again or mutating them beyond recognition is in some way creating a shared universe of any resemblance to Marvel. Amalgam era stories mark the definitive emergence of "brands" rather than characters and illusory change expresses itself in endless permutations of lowest common denominator pablum rather than epochal stories."

Marvel has become 1950s DC

While adopting the 1950s-DC approach to continuity, Marvel has taken on other 1950s-DC characteristics: if a character sells you make endless copies: endless variations of franchise characters that outsiders see as frankly silly. "T" wrote,

"DC has been in the franchise era for a while, since the days of Batman, Bat-Woman, Bat-Girl, Bat-Mite, Batgirl and and Ace the Bat-hound. Superman had Krypto, Beppo the Supermonkey, the Superhorse, the Supercat, Supergirl, Superboy, Bizarro. Green Lantern had a whole corps, plus Sinestro. Flash had Kid Flash and Reverse-Flash and later on Impulse and Zoom and the Flash from the future. Throw in the Earth-2/WW2 counterparts and the franchises get even huger."

"Marvel however was not big into franchises and legacies. Everyone was pretty unique. The earliest case of DC-ification I can recall was She-Hulk. Then the DC-ification started picking up steam. Spider-Man had Venom, Carnage, a couple of clones, a later team of symbiotes, Spider-Girl, Arachne, 3 Spider-Women, and recently Toxin. Hulk now has She Hulk, Red Hulk, Red She-Hulk, Savage She-Hulk, Son of Hulk. Captain America has Bucky Cap and US Agent. Wolverine has Sabretooth, Daken and a bunch of other feral mutant knockoffs."

And if you think those characters don't sound silly enough, we haven't mentioned Marvel Apes and the zombieverse.

Not just the Marvel Universe: the superhero market is dead.

Steven Grant observes,

"The superhero genre may not be the Titanic, no icebergs in sight, but everyone's still just rearranging deck chairs now. That's how the companies want it, because they're no longer marketing creations. They're peddling brands. Branding is everything now, and it's almost always more profitable to cash in on a long-established brand than to create, develop and market a new one. The superhero as brand name might be with us until the end of time, now, but the superhero as expression of genuine creativity is pretty much dead."

Alan Moore agrees:

"It looks like it’s stuck in the late ’80s and early 1990s and it’s just going to be an endless cycle of that material. ... It looks to me as if the comic industry is pretty much already getting out of comics. ... The biggest circulating news I saw coming from DC Warner Brothers last year was that they’d sold the rights to use Superman for some sort of online gambling. This is basically the only thing the characters are worth now? They’re so debased that they’re only useful for franchises, that you can knock out a few more Batman films, a few more Superman films… once that dries up, then what will there be? fear that people will soon be so conditioned to accepting stories that don’t go anywhere, that don’t resolve their plot lines, that can be changed at a whim to make it all never have happened. You can imagine that people conditioned to accept those kind of stories might eventually forget that there was any other kind of narrative.”

This is not a minority opinion. This final page of "Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book" describes the forever declining sales and sums up the problem:"Marvel bills itself as a 'licensing-based entertainment' company. [The comics] indulge in recycled thrills made stale by years of repetition in service to their value as licensing properties. ... Comic books are past the point of decline."

So there we have it. The biggest story ever told, and it's all over, killed by Marvel Time. It does not have to be this way. Marvel still has a choice.


How to gain and lose readers

From RJ Hall

You might be amused to hear tell of Spider-Man and how he's pulled me in and thrown me out of comics single-handedly twice now. I got into comics in 1993, I didn't start reading them passionately until October 1994's Web of Spider-Man #117. In case that issue doesn't immediately ring any bells, it's - *gulp * - the official first issue in the years-long Clone Saga. I started buying all four monthly Spidey titles, which just so happened to cost the exact same amount that I made in [your typical 8 year-old's] allowance each month. And while that never-ending story had me totally hooked for almost two years running, I nevertheless quit comics with June 1996's Amazing Spider-Man #412 because even at 10 years old, I could see by that point that nothing new was ever actually going to happen. (And the Clone Saga in fact continued for another six whole months after that before finally coming to a close!) It was Marvel Time on steroids!

I didn't return to comics until January 1999's Amazing Spider-Man #1 reboot, when I foolishly believed that Marvel had learned from their mistake. I honestly don't remember anything from the first 2 1/2 years of the title, back when Mackie was writing it, but I remember that when Straczynski took over in June 2001's ASM #30, I was initially blown away by his stories and JRJR's pencils. The mentor character Ezekiel was interesting, the 9/11 tribute issue was well-done, and Morlun was the first great new villain that Spidey had received in a long, long time. But that all happened just in JMS's first year on the book!

In the five years that followed, I was simply left questioning over and over again why I continued to follow the title, since JMS: introduced Gwen Stacy's children by Norman Osborn; killed Peter off only to immediately give him new birth with ridiculous new powers; and finally, had Peter literally make a deal with the devil, forfeiting his relationship with his wife... in order to save the life of an old woman who I'd in fact already witnessed the death of exactly one year prior to quitting comics the first time around! Unbelievable! Marvel Time outdoes itself!

While I did end up giving Brand New Day a try, and Slott's first arc on the book was in all honesty comprised of the best three issues of ASM that have been printed since 2001, I knew that I couldn't possibly be alone in thinking that something was seriously, terribly wrong with the Marvel Universe.

Is it too late for Marvel to save itself?

[From an anonymous visitor to this site, posted over at comicboards in response to a question I posted about Marvel Time. Reprinted with permission.]

I've been lurking here [comicboards] for awhile, but since I don't collect Marvel Comics anymore, nothing has prompted me to post until now.

I stopped collecting 20 years ago, after doing so religiously for 10 years, including attempts to collect back-issues of the entire Silver/Bronze Age Marvel Universe. Spider-Man was my all-time favorite hero, and I can unabashedly say that Amazing #121 was the most powerful comic I've ever read; but the FF was my favorite book, owning everything from #169-#269, especially acknowledging the Byrne run as my halcyon days of comic-collecting.

I've ever since kept the door wide open to the possibility of returning, often picking up comics, especially since I've acquired some disposable income. But besides back issues and Masterworks, my "Marvels" graphic novel is about the only thing I've bought in the last 20 years that's worth a hoot to me. McFarlane's Spider-Man totally turned me off (especially as he would arrogantly claim that art, not story, singularly sells comics), leading to the hoopla over sales (Spider-Man#1 & X-Men#1), then the market problems of the 90's, then the whole Spider-clone thing...

I've kept in touch with the medium, as a regular buyer of Wizard, frequenter of comic shops mainly to further my back-issue collection, as well as lurker here. And while I can't speak for the quality of individual comics today, as I don't read them, it sure seems to a casual observer like me that Marvel is in a god-awful mess. And I attribute it to 1 thing (well, 2 things) - unmitigated greed, coupled with a lethargic lack of foresight!

As you point out, the Marvel Universe was *built* on real-world time & events. Early growth was due to its heroes fighting the 2nd World War - no room for debate there. Its expansion was due to embracing the revolutionary 60's: heroes with real-world problems; the FF complementing the Space Race, not to mention the Surfer, Capt. Marvel, & Warlock; and Spidey appealing to college baby-boomers. The X-Men re-emergence & Miller's Daredevil were clearly in tune with the early 80's, and I fondly remember the Shooter/Perez Avengers story of Gyrich's government inclusion of The Falcon into the group, at Hawkeye's protestations, reflecting the political climate of the day.

Appearances and references to Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, the Beatles, Nixon, Kiss, Saturday Night Live, Reagan, & Letterman throughout Marvel history should have made this a no-brainer! WW2 heroes had to each be strategically incorporated into real-time in the 60's, as awkwardly as they were. Even Sgt.Fury and the line of Westerns acknowledged real-time, or their markets were meaningless! In fact DC suffered for their lack of it - stagnant Gothams & Metropolises - until Marvel started to slip. Secret Wars II didn't help, but after the weddings of Peter & Mary-Jane and Johnny & Alicia, something needed to be addressed. A quarter-century had passed in real-time, and while most things could be easily adapted by a few more gray hairs - not all things, and not for long.

Again as you note, Franklin Richards was the red flag. By 1986 he should have been an early teenager at least. Other characters could have been explained given some leeway, but Franklin's age needed to be addressed, and I looked for Byrne to do it. He thankfully brought Sue into the mid-80's, so why not Franklin? Simple - Sue's restructuring appealed to his own agenda, while helping to coordinate chronology for us all never entered his equation. I never look for those scrambling to make a living to advance things, but those enjoying the fruits of success *should* (just something I learned from Uncle Ben...)

I guess I blame Byrne most for this lack of spearheading (mainly due to Franklin), as I can see no reason why Claremont or Miller or even McFarlane would not have embraced it (and essentially did) with their own titles. McFarlane probably would have gladly taken on a brand new Spider-Man (as his clearly was in look), not Peter Parker. Peter & Mary-Jane, in the title Peter Parker, should have taken on a more mature role, still with powers, but with even more problems. Would it have been a best seller? Probably not, but Amazing wouldn't have been considerably affected, and other new titles would have benefited - New Mutants being exhibit A. Most importantly, 20 years down the road a completely viable, relevant, and refreshing Universe would still exist! Alas, no... I observe more excitement over Essentials these days than anything else.

I copied down the results of Attok12's recent survey concerning choice of a hypothetical Marvel line-up (adding my votes). Final results (top 12 titles & creators) showed nothing past '87: Lee/Kirby "FF" (excluding Byrne due to 2 higher-scoring projects); JRJr/various writers from Lee to Stern "Spider-man"; Englehart/Brunner "Dr.Strange"; Gerber/Buscema "Defenders"; Shooter/Perez "Avengers"; Miller "DD"; Claremont/Byrne "X-Men"; Mantlo/Buscema "Hulk"; Simonson "Thor"; Michelinie/Layton "Iron Man"; Stern/Byrne "Capt.America"; & a "Team-Up" title by J.Starlin/R.Thomas/J.Buscema (next scoring creators) doing Silver Surfer & Warlock (next scoring titles).

Which certainly spurs me on to complete my Silver/Bronze Age collection, rather than buy anything new. As a popular lyric attests, ironically from 1988, "what's so civil about war anyway?"

[While giving permission to quote, the author added the following]

Personally I don't think there's any way to rectify such a pitiful 20-year decline. DC tried with Crisis, etc, I guess; but Marvel has apparently fallen into the same DC trap of the 70's - something Marvel proudly stood apart from for years, and significantly benefited from.

The hard lessons came in 1955 and 1962. Marvel (Timely/Atlas) brought all their old heroes back, and tried to make them relevant in a new world, cashing-in on old glory. It failed miserably in 1955. Thus, brand new exciting and relevant heroes in 1962, in the world of 1962, and of course New York - not Gotham, Metropolis, or Brigadoon - but *our* New York! I was not born in 1962, but I was able to appreciate real-time easily enough. And creativity, not prior sales, was the driving factor. Sales will always come as a by-product if the creations are worthy. I think this is a completely lost concept.

My Marvel Age ended Dec '87, unfortunately.

The Great American Novel