By Andrew Steinbeiser
For the past 75 years, no fictional landscape has been as tightly tethered to our own world as the Marvel Universe. Any reader could tell just by looking out their window.
The Empire State Building. Times Square. The George Washington Bridge. These iconic landmarks represent just drops in the expansive pool that we share with Marvel and its iconic inhabitants. From World War II up to this very day, the fates of our reality and the Marvel Universe remain intertwined, creating a relatable voyage like none other for readers everywhere.
"This is one of the many qualities that set the Marvel Universe apart from its competitors, and help it connect with generations of readers," says Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso. "The Marvel Universe is your world, good and bad."
In honor of the 75 years that Marvel has spent building a personalized universe, read the top historical moments showcasing just how close it hits to home.
World War II
The Marvel Universe may not exist as it does today without the United States’ second Great War.
A global event that bonded the country into one unified force, World War II left no citizen unmoved. This included two New York youths named Jack Kirby and Joe Simon who, after hearing of atrocities happening overseas, sought to create a hero who could man the frontlines they couldn’t; a soldier to inspire those both on and off the battlefield.
With the publication of CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS #1, Simon and Kirby did just that, spawning one of Marvel’s most enduring icons and a national trend: super heroes proved the new gateway into the war for those who couldn’t fight.
"Simon and Kirby were bravely using [Captain America] as a kind of call to arms, warning readers about the danger of Nazism and urging America to fight the German threat," says Marvel historian Peter Sanderson.
From the Human Torch to the Sub-Mariner, the Timely Comics—the predecessor to Marvel—boomed with characters participating in the war effort, creating the foundations of a universe that remain relevant to this day.
The Space Race
The cosmos contain so many of Marvel’s greatest characters and concepts that they could occupy an entire universe of their own. But Marvel mainstays like Thanos and the Guardians of the Galaxy owe their very existence to a generation of minds who grew up with space as a frontier of endless possibility.
As the United States entered the 60’s, its next great pursuit was the stars. Determined to discover what existed beyond our planet, President John F. Kennedy and NASA made outer space a national priority. This in turn spurred an unprecedented interest in science fiction and cosmic storytelling. In fact, Marvel’s First Family, The Fantastic Four, drew its roots from America’s star-bound pursuits.
"If you read Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's [Fantastic Four] origin story, you will see that Reed Richards wants to launch his spaceship in order to beat the Russians into space," Sanderson notes.
With the seal officially broken, a floodgate of sci-fi centric figures stormed every corner of the Marvel Universe. Whereas patriots and soldiers had been the inspiration for Marvel’s first generation of heroes, scientists and inventors became the blueprint for characters like Reed Richards, Hank Pym, Bruce Banner, Tony Stark, and more.
"The space race captured the imagination of the country and made it seem like a patriotic duty to outdo the Russians in space travel," Sanderson says. "This made it seem cool to be a scientist."
By the 1970’s, Marvel had become a cultural juggernaut.
Bolstered by an expanding catalog of characters and a devoted readership of thousands, Marvel Comics had become an undeniable part of mainstream American discourse. It could provide insightful and constructive commentary on issues affecting its readers. Chief among: drug abuse, an epidemic endangering a sizable portion of America’s youth. Sean Howe, author of “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story,” says that President Richard Nixon’s administration recognized this influence, and requested that Marvel address drug abuse in one of its titles.
That request turned into one of the most historical story arcs of the 20th century: AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #96-98. In the story, Peter Parker must help Harry Osborn overcome his addiction to drugs. A problem, however, came when the Comics Code authority would not permit a comic book to depict drug use of any kind. Stan Lee published the story without the CCA’s approval, a brazen move signifying Marvel’s dedication to delivering the stories that needed to be told, regardless of any authority’s approval.
"The tackling of drug abuse…was an important step in chipping away at the restrictions of the Comics Code," says Howe.
Even through the worst of times, Marvel has remained committed to reflecting its readership’s world. That dedication became most apparent in the tragic months following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
With New York City as its official heart, Marvel Comics had a duty to reflect whatever it endured, no matter how tragic. What came from this responsibility was AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #36, by J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita Jr. Known as “The Black Issue,” the comic famously ran a solid black cover as a memorial for the lives lost and sacrificed on that tragic day.
"I watched the towers fall from the street on 5th Avenue so what happened on 9/11 was not abstract," Alonso, who served as editor of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN at the time, recalls. "When I returned to work a couple days later, it occurred to me that it made absolutely no sense to ignore what had happened, and my mind immediately went to New York’s homegrown super hero, Peter Parker."
With Spider-Man as readers’ gateway to the aftermath, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #36 rallied heroes and villains alike in the Ground Zero recovery effort. With Doctor Doom quietly paying his respects to the fallen, Marvel showed the world that the need for support can eclipse the bitterest of rivalries.
Barack Obama Teams with the Amazing Spider-Man
In celebration of Barack Obama’s historic inauguration as President of the United States, Marvel Comics immortalized the commander in chief in a special team-up with Spider-Man. After the two American icons thwarted the Chameleon’s attempt at political sabotage on Inauguration Day, President Obama gives Spider-Man his trademark fist bump, fulfilling a fantasy that most real world Americans could only dream about.
Even in a world of super powers, Asgardian Realms, and billion-dollar armors, nothing seems cooler than a fist bump from the President.
"Why have real Presidents appear in Marvel stories, whether in big roles or cameos? This is part of the basic Marvel philosophy of setting stories in a recognizably real world," explains Sanderson. "Marvel's fantasies are based on a foundation in reality."
But the excitement hardly remained contained to Obama’s Marvel Universe adventure. The variant cover of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #583, which featured Obama giving a thumbs up to Spider-Man and the rest of the world, became a pop culture phenomenon. With our world and the Marvel Universe’s closer than ever, the Amazing Spider-Man burned through five different printings and became the decade’s highest-selling issue of a regular series.
Celebrate the 75th anniversary of Marvel at marvel.com/75 and join the conversation on Twitter using the hash tag #Marvel75