James Bowman (jeb1981) wrote,
James Bowman

A universe without Marvel

By 1961, Stan Lee was tired of working in the comic book industry. He was considering quitting Marvel Comics, when editor Martin Goodman tasked him with creating a new superhero team, hoping to compete with DC's Justice League of America. With support from his wife Joan, Lee decided to take a chance and write the sort of story he would enjoy reading, with more realistic, flawed characters. After all, Joan noted, he didn't have much to lose if he was planning to leave anyway. Working with artist Jack Kirby, Lee produced Fantastic Four #1, which was an immediate success. Lee stayed at Marvel, co-creating many of the most popular superheroes in comics, and Marvel Comics became one of the biggest comic companies ever.

But what if that hadn't happened? Suppose Stan Lee burned out on comics earlier, and left before creating the Fantastic Four? Suppose we had a world without the Marvel Universe?

In 1961, Marvel takes a stab at superhero comics; their new editor-in-chief works with artist Jack Kirby to develop a superhero team. Despite memorable artwork, the new title doesn't do anything else that makes it stand out, and Marvel soon gives up on superheroes. The company gradually goes into decline, and is eventually remembered only as one of many companies to try and fail to compete with DC. Jack Kirby freelances for DC and other companies, but never gets a chance to create anything as successful as he did in the Golden Age.

Over at DC Comics, the more conservative comic culture there never has to deal with serious competition. As a result, they play it safe, capitalizing on the campy popularity of the Batman TV series and keeping things light. Comic books never make serious inroads with older readers, and the majority continue to think of them of kid stuff.

As the decade opens, DC is in a creative slump, but keeps its mainstream relevance with its Super Friends cartoons, the Wonder Woman television series, and the Christopher Reeve Superman films. The real innovations in comics are happening at smaller publishers, as well as underground and fanzine publications, but none of these manage to attract more than a cult following. Comic conventions remain small and largely irrelevant to mainstream culture, and few dedicated comic stores open in America, as there's not enough of a market for them. Fandom remains concentrated in literary and media-focused conventions, with comic fans having only a minor presence there.

Conan the Barbarian remains a character only known among readers of fantasy novels and classic pulp stories.1 Meanwhile, in Japan, Toei loses interest in the nascent "super sentai" subgenre after J.A.K.Q. Dengekitai, as they fail to find the core elements that would make the subgenre a success.2 They decide to focus primarily on shows in the vein of the more successful Kamen Rider.

DC is still the biggest comic publisher in America, but that only makes them the biggest fish in a small pond. Comics are firmly established as something adults can appreciate only nostalgically, like Hanna Barbera cartoons. Comic fandom is a niche in the U.S., somewhere between the sizes of the very early "Japanimation" fandom and literary SF fandom. By the end of the decade, most comic publishers have scaled back radically or gone out of business. This includes DC, which focuses on its core titles (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and the Justice League of America) and is otherwise creatively stagnant, echoing its fate at the end of the Golden Age. Warner Bros. releases a Batman film in the late 1980s - the campy movie is a financial success but doesn't make a lasting impact.

Meanwhile, the big 1980s toy franchises get their start. Mattel launches Masters of the Universe, centered on a science-fantasy superhero called He-Man in a high-tech, clearly Star Wars-inspired setting.3 The line is reasonably popular, supported by an animated series from Filmation. Hasbro collaborates with DIC Enterprises to produce tie-in cartoons for its relaunched G.I. Joe toy line (taking inspiration from their earlier Adventure Team) and The Transformers (a premise based closely on Takara's Microman and Diaclone toy lines). While both toy lines are fondly remembered, the two cartoons fail to rise above the competition of the era.4 Transformers, in particular, has a tough time competing with the GoBots line, which has a stronger fictional setting and a superior cartoon from Hanna Barbera.

Elsewhere, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird decide against self-publishing their own underground comics.5 And Arnold Schwarzenegger gets his first big break playing the title role in The Terminator; however, he finds himself typecast as menacing villains and antiheroes throughout the decade.6

DC Comics continues to stumble forward with its core stable of heroes, but never takes risks on anything else - the comics are only there to maintain the property at this point. Warner Bros. does produce a number of new DC animated series in the vein of the earlier Super Friends cartoons - they are fondly remembered by 1990s kids, but are otherwise unremarkable.

In general, cartoons of the era tend towards the light and silly, as in earlier decades. Action cartoons only rarely try to be more than what parents and critics accuse them of being - glorified ads for new toy lines. (Few action cartoons in the 1980s lasted more than a season, and they did just fine without sophisticated writing and animation, so why push the limits?) Fans of "Japanimation" and Japanese live-action successors to Kamen Rider wonder if their favorites will ever be appreciated by American audiences, with companies like Saban7 and DIC only translating lighter kid-friendly fare. Disney also avoids action cartoons, content to focus their syndicated shows on their existing characters.8

21st Century
Past the 1990s, genre entertainment history has diverged so much that it becomes unrecognizable. Remember, this is a history without any of the following:
  • Marvel superheroes, and any media featuring them (including the Bixby/Ferrigno Incredible Hulk; the 1990s X-Men cartoon; the 2000s X-Men and Spider-Man films; and the Marvel Cinematic Universe)
  • Crisis on Infinite Earths or the subsequent revisions of the DC universe
  • The Burton Batman films, as well as Batman: The Animated Series and its successors
  • The fantasy version of He-Man
  • Successful and influential Conan, G.I. Joe, and Transformers franchises
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Mighty Morphin Power Rangers
  • The 1990s comic boom, including the rise of publishers like Image
  • Dubs of anime like Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z in the U.S.
  • An influential comic book fandom, and the direct comic shop market (critical for many independent publishers)
  • Action cartoons and superhero movies being taken fairly seriously
  • Widespread acceptance in the west that comics and cartoons can be unironically enjoyed by adults
  • Any number of films, shows, books, games, etc. inspired by the above

If you subtract all these influences, I'm not sure what we have today. My best guess is an entertainment environment more resembling the 1970s, with cartoons and comics being overwhelmingly for kids, anime remaining a niche interest outside of the rare dub, and live-action works with a SF-fantasy focus expected to be family-friendly and continuity-light.

Wild cards
There are a lot of unpredictable elements of this alternate history. Most notably, there are lots of people who worked at Marvel who would work elsewhere in this timeline. Maybe they influence DC to take more risks; maybe they influence other creative industries in unexpected ways. Perhaps any number of works that never existed in our history would become massively successful media juggernauts in this alternate timeline. And perhaps some of those would fill in the gap left by Marvel's absence - maybe even another major comic publisher with Marvel-style characters. (If another such publisher arose, it would probably be in the 1970s... and not a company we're familiar with in our history.)

On the other hand, how many creators inspired by Marvel Comics (and the other missing works) never get into creative industries at all? Without an early love for genre fiction, many might never try to break into the business. And many other creators who did work in the industry in the 1960s through 1980s might never have found their big break, without Marvel and a more competitive DC willing to take a chance on them.

And anime may have found a different way to become popular in the U.S., through its popularity in Europe and South America. However, I have to assume this wouldn't have kicked in until at least the 2000s, when it became practical to share such information online (especially video clips) - too late to be as big an influence on today's creators as it is here. (so I wouldn't bet on shows like Avatar or Steven universe in this alternate history.)

Speaking of Japan, it's possible that the necessary parts for building the "super sentai" subgenre might have appeared in later TV series, so its entry into Japanese pop culture would only be delayed instead of eliminated. This would still likely delete some significant series, however.

It's also worth considering that many properties that did modestly well in our history might be more influential with their competitors gone. For example, would M.A.S.K. and GoBots beat out a weaker G.I. Joe and Transformers as the nostalgic favorites of 1980s kids?

And then there's the ripple effect of a weaker comic fandom and comic industry. How many friendships would never have happened with fewer comic cons or local comic shops? How many relationships, even children, were born from the community Marvel helped build? Some fans may have turned to other media and other fandoms, but certainly not all .

Your thoughts are welcome.

  1. Marvel began publishing Conan comics in the early 1970s, which did much to bring the character to wider attention.
  2. Marvel worked with Toei on 1978's Japanese adaptation of Spider-Man and 1979's Battle Fever J, which helped establish the major conventions of the subgenre. It's also worth noting that the premature death of the "super sentai" genre would have likely eliminated later sentai-influenced anime from Japanese pop culture, such as Beast King GoLion (aka Voltron).
  3. Mattel took clear inspiration from Conan when designing He-Man, having discussed a Conan toy line with the rights owners before parting ways and moving in their own direction. However, the barbarian He-Man was only one of three ideas considered, the others being a soldier and a spaceman. With Conan being a weaker property in this timeline, it would make more sense to follow in the footsteps of Star Wars and choose the spaceman - especially since Mattel passing on the Star Wars toy license was another driving force behind He-Man.
  4. Marvel Productions collaborated with Hasbro to develop G.I. Joe and Transformers, and were responsible for a large part of the two lines' characters and concepts. After these hits ran their course, Hasbro turned to DIC to produce a cartoon based on their new COPS toy line, as well as a new G.I. Joe series, but neither were nearly as successful as Hasbro's earlier Marvel collaborations. In this alternate history, absent Marvel's creative input, and working with the less innovative DIC at an earlier stage, Hasbro would be more likely to play it safe and draw on the histories of the two toy lines instead. Incidentally, Marvel Productions also produced the cartoons for Dungeons & Dragons, My Little Pony, and Jem, among others; assuming they existed at all in this history, they would also have likely been less-memorable productions from DIC or other companies.
  5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started as a parody of (among other things) Marvel's New Mutants and Daredevil. Also, their early success depended on the existing community of comic book fans, as well as independent comic shops.
  6. Arnold's original breakout role was in Conan the Barbarian, which featured him as a heroic lead.
  7. Much of Saban's clout in the 1990s came from the success of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, whose source show, Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger, likely didn't exist in this history. Meanwhile, other Japanese properties that rode on the coattails of Power Rangers, like Sailor Moon, would be unlikely to find an opportunity here. The weakened market for serious action cartoons would make bringing anime over even tougher.
  8. For example, Gargoyles was seen as a potential competitor with Power Rangers; without that or action cartoons like Batman: The Animated Series to compete against, odds are against it being made.

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