Jordan Raphael

Douglas Thomas, Chair
Marita Stuken, Dana Polan

Four-Color Marvels: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and the Development of Comic-Book Fandom

Over the last four decades, American comic books have evolved from a mass medium to a niche medium. They have also given rise to one of the most sophisticated and enduring forms of media fandom. To document and analyze this evolution, this study employs historiography, political economy, literary analysis, and sociology. The dominant narrative is the story of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, cocreators of the Marvel Universe and the key figures in the rise of comic-book fandom. Chapter One examines the history of comics scholarship, arguing that this scholarship has become more intelligent and sweeping in its topical purview as a result of the increasing sophistication of the comic-book form. Intellectually driven criticism about comic books has also caused comics creators to think more creatively and to push the boundaries of the medium in new directions. Chapter Two presents a history of comic books using the career of Stan Lee as a lens. Lee was not only pivotal in the so-called Marvel Comics revolution of the 1960s but he also played a crucial role in the development of comic-book fandom by nurturing the interests of early collectors and aficionados. The articulation of production and consumption in the early-1960s era of Marvel Comics resulted in new ways of conceptualizing the comic-book medium on the part of both producers and consumers. Chapter Three focuses on consumption, tracing the development of comics fandom from a small network of distant correspondents to a large, organized community with its own shared set of codes, rituals, and meanings. In particular, the strong links between comics and creators distinguish comic-book fandom from the fandoms that form around television programs or other media products. Chapter Four analyzes the links between production and consumption in comics culture through a case study of the discourse surrounding the Jack Kirby original art dispute of the 1980s. The Kirby dispute, which forced a rethinking of both the creation narrative of Marvel Comics and Stan Lee’s accomplishments, illustrates how a subculture deals with internal conflict and realigns its perceptions. This study concludes with a snapshot of comic books today.