Marveling at the Marvel method

As real-world heroes fall, the durability of Stan Lee's myth-making machine is impressive

These are tough times for heroes — witness the fate of Gen. David Petraeus and a couple of his fellow military mavens. Even with four stars on your uniform, the FBI scrutinizes your email and latenight comics review your taste in girlfriends.

Until a few weeks ago Petraeus was on his way to becoming the next Eisenhower; Newsweek billed him as the man who saved Iraq. By last week however, a headline in the New York Times described him as “a phony hero of a phony war.”

With heroes capsizing all around us, I found myself engrossed in a new book about the history of a company that has taken on the job of inventing heroes — superheroes, in fact. The characters created by Marvel Comics live forever, right?

Well, not quite. It turns out that Marvel, too, has had its ups and downs. Yes, even Captain America and Iron Man have had their Petraeus moments.

In “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story,” Sean Howe reminds us that, as recently as 1979, Marvel ran ads in Variety begging for buyers to come along and bid for its superheroes. Sure, Spider-Man and the X-Men had led storied lives (made-up stories, to be sure) but they’d had to overcome the failures of Shang-Chi (son of Fu Manchu), Coal Tiger (the first black superhero) and the Human Torch, who burned everything in sight, including his publisher. (The Torch later hooked up with the Fantastic Four.)

It seems that comicbook aficionados who relished the steely efficiency of the Hulk also were exasperated by the dysfunctional efforts of Invisible Girl to defeat pathetic Mole Man (he was half-blind, after all).

To be sure, the movie based on the “Avengers” comicbooks has become the third-biggest grossing film of all time and Spider-Man seems to have achieved its own curious immortality. But sustaining the fortunes of Marvel Comics has been a rigorous 70-year-long battle.

Some of the company’s biggest problems, ironically, occurred in the ’70s when comicbooks, like the movies, decided to become more socially relevant. Suddenly Captain America was dating a black girl, the Hulk was hanging in the ghetto and the Avengers became involved in women’s lib. The arch enemy of the X-Men, it turned out, gained a certain empathy because he’d been a survivor of Auschwitz.

While the Village Voice at the time praised Marvel’s efforts “to evoke even metaphorically the real world,” some readers were left in the cold. At one point Marvel sold the live-action TV rights to Spider-Man and the Hulk for a mere $12,000. The company declared bankruptcy in the late 1990s and lost the rights to characters like X-Men and Spider-Man to Fox and Sony, respectively.

All this was depressing to Stan Lee, who as an 18-year-old (and then named Stanley Lieber) had taken over as editor of what was called Timely Comics. Lee went on to run a sort of story machine in which he came forth with plotlines and characters and a band of eager aides would craft them into full-fledged comic stories — a form of collaboration that came to be known as the Marvel Method. Lee wanted his comicbook readers to be able to relate to the back stories of his characters, even if the characters carried odd names like Doctor Doom or Professor X.

Marvel is now a money machine with its production chief, Kevin Feige, presiding over an upcoming slate consisting of “Iron Man 3,” “Thor: The Dark World,” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” There will also be another Avengers film and even an “Ant Man.” No sign of his insect relative the Human Fly.

The Publicists Guild will give Feige an award shortly on the assumption that he has found a way to overcome the cycles of the movie business and will now only make surefire hits.

Shrewdly, Feige has not disclosed whether he plans to expand his slate with big-budget features starring Coal Tiger, Shang-Chi or the Human Torch.

Column Calendar: Monday: Peter Bart Tuesday: Cynthia Littleton/Josh L. Dickey wednesday: Brian Lowry Thursday: Andrew Barker/David S. Cohen Friday: Tim Gray/Ted Johnson