Exactly 80 years ago this week, on Aug. 31, 1939, something new appeared on newsstands.
The pulpy, 10-cent cover promised “action, mystery and adventure,” and depicted a flaming creature bursting through a wall as a man futilely blasts it with a pistol.
This was the first Marvel comic, and the humble beginnings of a company that would remain in continuous publication for the next eight decades — no small feat — and ultimately launch a superhero-fueled global empire.
To mark the occasion, Marvel is celebrating with several events, birthday merchandise and the release this past Wednesday of “Marvel Comics” #1000, a commemorative issue reflecting on the company’s history.
Few companies have had such a long-lasting influence on pop culture. As a tip of the cowl, let’s look back through the decades at Marvel’s most enduring contributions to modern entertainment.
1930s: The anti-hero is born!
“Marvel Comics” #1 appeared a little more than a year after the blockbuster debut of DC’s Superman — though the “superheroes” within the Marvel comic were quite different.
“The Human Torch was less a superhero than a Frankenstein monster run amok, and the Sub-Mariner was a virtual terrorist, staging attacks on the surface world on behalf of his undersea nation,” Marvel’s executive editor Tom Brevoort tells The Post.
Marvel would continue to create characters in that mold — conflicted, not squeaky clean — for decades to come.
1940s: An American hero for every age!
In 1940, two New York comic book pros, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, created patriotic hero Captain America as a reaction to the totalitarian regimes popping up abroad.
And although the hero was tied to World War II, he has somehow transcended that era and remained relevant to this day.
“I think Captain America is a simple idea that can adapt to fit the tenor of the times while maintaining an underlying conceptual power,” Brevoort says. “He’s the ultimate patriot, but more than that, he’s the ultimate realization of the ideals upon which our nation was founded.
“Captain America isn’t a ‘My country, right or wrong’ sort of a patriot; rather, he holds himself — and by extension his country — to a higher ideal.”
1950s: The king returns!
By the late 1950s, Marvel was on the brink of closure, having whittled its output to a handful of titles and its staff to little more than editor Stan Lee.
But in 1958, the return of artist Jack Kirby, who had been working at rival DC, would mark the beginnings of a turnaround.
Together with Lee, Kirby would reinvent the superhero on a slew of new titles, including “Fantastic Four,” “Avengers” and “X-Men,” and lift Marvel out of the doldrums.
During his years with Marvel, Kirby created or co-created hundreds of characters, many of which are now billion-dollar intellectual properties that fuel TV shows and films.
1960s: The Marvel Universe bursts into existence!
It’s a concept that we take for granted now: the shared universe.
But it’s an innovation that Marvel helped perfect in the 1960s in its new superhero titles. In 1963’s “Fantastic Four” #12, for example, the supergroup battles the Hulk.
“The fact that not only did the Marvel characters live in a real-world city [New York], but would also encounter one another very casually as the months went by conveyed a greater sense of reality and verisimilitude about the nascent Marvel Universe, giving readers more of a sense of it being a genuine place where all of these heroes and villains co-existed,” Brevoort says.
The concept has bewitched Hollywood, from DC’s superheroes to Universal’s aborted Dark Universe.
1970s: Heroes have subtext!
One of the ways that Marvel was able to capture an older readership than those who traditionally read comic books was by filling its comics with more than just fistfights.
And few did that better than the new “X-Men” in the 1970s, which quickly won new readers who appreciated the story of mutant outcasts as a metaphor for their own otherness.
1980s: Superheroes grow up!
The ‘80s are rightly remembered as the decade when comic books got serious — and sometimes seriously dark — by embracing more mature subjects and storytelling.
The revolution arguably started in 1980, when a young New York transplant named Frank Miller took over writing and drawing Marvel’s on-the-brink-of-cancellation series “Daredevil,” borrowing from hard-boiled crime fiction and manga and turning the series into one of the most sophisticated reads around. (His work was the basis for Netflix’s “Daredevil” series.)
That we now accept that comics aren’t just for kids began, at least in part, here.
1990s: Marvel breaks the fourth wall!
When he was first introduced in 1991, Deadpool was little more than another costumed badass. But as the years went by, he slowly morphed into a quippy wise guy who often directly addressed the readers.
Other characters had been similarly irreverent, but Deadpool became perfectly positioned to offer meta-commentary on the eventual superhero screen-bloat with his hilariously cutting 2016 movie and 2018 sequel. Who better to stick a pin in the sometimes ridiculous nature of comic books than a comic book publisher itself?
2000s: Marvel conquers the movies!
In 2008, the untested director Jon Favreau, working for a fledgling studio, took a third-tier superhero and turned his story into a blockbuster that improbably launched one of the most dominant and profitable forces ever in Hollywood.
“Iron Man” established a blueprint that would be used to build 22 more films (and counting) and a juggernaut cinematic universe that may outlast the sun.
“The manner in which they have built one film atop the next has created a series of big event films for an entire generation of moviegoers,” Brevoort says. “People will remember going out to see ‘Avengers,’ or ‘Infinity War’ or ‘Endgame’ in the same way that prior generations memorialized seeing ‘Star Wars’ for the first time. It’s a hell of an achievement.”
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