For anyone who has seen more than one Marvel movie but would shrug perplexedly at the mention of Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko, “Marvel, 75 Years: From Pulp To Pop!” — an ABC special, giving “Agents of SHIELD” the week off — should probably be required viewing. Fun, fast-paced and encompassing many of the company’s highlights along with a few lowlights, it’s a solid primer on Marvel’s history, while weaving in inevitable self-promotion and synergistic plugs. Frankly, an hour doesn’t do the topic justice, but it’s still a timely recognition of the outfit that started out 75 years ago as, yes, Timely Comics.
Hosted by Emily VanCamp — who not only stars in ABC’s “Revenge” and appeared in the last “Captain America” movie, but also looks like a stereotypical comicbook fan’s imaginary girlfriend — the special races through those early years, when editor Martin Goodman began churning out superhero titles in response to the success of Superman.
Those creations — including the Human Torch, Captain America and Sub-Mariner — came largely under the stewardship of writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby, with a later assist from the young Stanley Lieber, a cousin of Goodman’s wife, who eventually chopped his name in half, becoming Stan Lee.
The real meat of the Marvel story — the prime cuts of which can be seen in theaters today — comes from the early 1960s, as Lee and Kirby collaborated on a series of new titles in an explosion of creativity that’s been compared with the musical output of Lennon and McCartney. In the span of a few years, they birthed the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the X-Men, the Avengers, Iron Man and Ant-Man (all of which have or will be coming to a theater near you) plus Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, on which Lee collaborated with Ditko.
The producers have spoken to a who’s who of comicbook luminaries (included the irrepressible Lee, now 91), as well as Kirby’s son Neal, who notes that his father “saw comicbooks as storyboards for movies” — a good description of the kinetic nature of his illustrations. “Spawn” creator Todd McFarlane rightly refers to the Lee-Kirby streak during the ’60s as “staggering.”
There’s also a bit of time devoted to Marvel declaring bankruptcy, and the disappointments in early translations of its characters to TV and movies, which is vital to understanding the audacity of the company’s plan when it embarked on “Iron Man” and the interwoven titles that have followed.
If those represent the best parts of the docu, its irritants include an emphasis on interviews with ABC and/or Marvel stars (a la Jimmy Kimmel), who might harbor a love for the comics but feel conspicuously like they’re in the mix for crass cross-promotional purposes. And even allowing for the limited overall running time given the material, there are rather glaring omissions, such as any reference to the 2000 movie “X-Men” (like Spider-Man, one of the properties to which Marvel lost theatrical rights) in helping chart the way for 21st-century superhero fare; or a discussion of the unique way Lee interacted with artists, empowering them to visually tell the story.
Those amount to quibbles, however, in a special that celebrates Marvel’s blockbuster present while offering perspective on its past. And even if “From Pulp to Pop!” represents an abridged version of that history, it still gives welcome credit to some of the mere mortals behind the masked heroes.