- Courtesy of the Henry Ford
- Marvel: Universe of Heroes premieres on Thursday, July 16 and will run through Jan. 31, 2021 at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation
The year is 2020 and there is no one to save us.
At least that's how it feels here on Earth-1, where a global pandemic rages on and civil unrest spills into the streets, under the rule of a reality TV-show/wannabe-Nazi president.
However, on Earth-616, the multiverse home to nearly every single one of Marvel Comics' beloved heroes, villains, and mutants, there is no shortage of cloaked wizard doctors, hammer-wielding alien gods, air force alien goddesses, massively temperamental green dudes, cat-like African kings, arachnid-obsessed high schoolers, Walkman-loving celestial human hybrids, Russian assassins with ever-changing hairstyles, sardonic raccoons, purple bad daddies, and Ant-Man. You know, like, a man who can shrink down to the size of an ant because, obviously, being really small has its advantages in very select situations.
In addition to a cast of extraordinary characters, each with their own super strengths, quirks, and winding origin stories, on Earth-616 something else is in plentiful supply: hope. Well, that, and maybe bulletproof spandex, but mostly hope.
It's not to say some crazy shit doesn't take place on Earth-616 — because it absolutely does. And not just crazy, but very dark. Like, when Tony Stark aka Iron Man battles alcoholism (Iron Man "Demon in a Bottle" #120-128, 1979); or, as detailed in 1984's Spider-Man and Power Pack #1, when Peter Parker reveals that he was molested as a child by an older friend; and in 2018's blockbuster film Avengers: Infinity War, the Mad Titan known as Thanos sacrifices his adopted daughter — and love interest to Star-Lord of The Guardians of the Galaxy clan — Gamora, in his quest to wipe out half of the world's population.
But, in the 81 years since Marvel's inception — which, to be clear, occurred on Earth-1 — has pushed the boundaries of imagination and adventure, making the impossible possible and the possible impossibly exciting for children, adults, and those of us who are forever somewhere in the middle.
Established in 1939, then as Timely Publications, the first print comic titled Marvel Comics No. 1 debuted characters The Angel, Sub-Mariner, Masked Raider, Ka-Zar, and the flammable android the Human Torch, who, by the way, is not the same Human Torch, aka Johnny Storm, who would appear in 1961 when comic legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby debuted Marvel's first superhero ensemble, the Fantastic Four.
OK, to those who can, like, cite the comic in which Wakandan hero the Black Panther first appears (Fantastic Four #52, 1966), or those who claim they weren't at all surprised when Captain America was actually a member of ancient terrorist/neo-fascist organization Hydra (as revealed in 2016's Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 because, honestly, he's always kind of been a heinous little shit) — this may seem like information ripped from some Marvel 101 Wiki page. However, for others who may be more invested in, say, the linear Marvel Cinematic Universe or fancy themselves a casual fan of a specific Marvel franchise like Thor because, well, abs, it's another piece of Marvel's dizzying history of how a 10-cent comic book by a modest publishing house became a global phenomenon and a behemoth entertainment conglomerate now worth an estimated $4 billion.
The truth is, the intricately designed Marvel Universe is, and always has been, big enough for everyone — and it's getting bigger.
For Marvel fans of all curiosities comes Marvel: Universe of Super-Heroes, an immersive exhibit that spans Marvel's 81-year legacy from sketch to screen. The exhibit, which has previously visited Philadelphia, includes more than 300 artifacts and costumes and makes its Midwest debut at Dearborn's Henry Ford Museum from July 16 through Jan. 31, 2021.
While metro Detroit might seem like a totally random location to host the exhibit, it is, in fact, a poetic choice, considering that the first major comic convention started in Detroit in 1965, and the creative minds behind the first Black female superhero (Misty Knight), the first Arab American superhero (Amulet), and Thanos — one of the biggest, baddest villains in the multiverse who, with a single snap, changed the course of Marvel forever — are native metro Detroiters, some of whom returned.
Comic creator Jim Starlin's origin story goes something like this: boy loves comics, boy draws comics, boy expands — and destroys — the multiverse. OK — so it's not that simple, nor is Starlin's relationship, er, breakup with Marvel (more on that later).
Born in Detroit, Starlin grew up loving comic books and would, as he says, "haunt" thrift shops in search of used comics, like Marvel Tales. His father, a draftsman at Chrysler, would sneak tracing paper, No. 2 pencils, and masking tape to fulfill his woodworking hobby. Starlin would often confiscate his stash to trace comic covers, and later stopped tracing and started drawing.
"What became a hobby became an obsession, which became a profession," Starlin tells Metro Times.
He wasn't alone. Starlin's childhood friend Al Milgrom shared a similar love of comics. Though the two would go their separate ways when Milgrom went to the University of Michigan and Starlin enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a photographer, they found themselves together again in 1972, this time in Marvel's New York City offices. Starlin refers to Milgrom as being his "main anchor" throughout the years. Together they worked on The Death of Captain Marvel, The Infinity War, The Infinity Crusade, and others.
While in the service, Starlin started sending his drawings to Marvel and rival DC Comics. When he returned home, he stuck it out for a semester at Oakland Community College when he successfully sold two two-page stories to DC for their horror books. But something diabolical happened while Starlin attended OCC — Starlin created Thanos, thanks to an enlightening philosophy guest speaker who talked about Thanatos and Eros, and the light and dark sides of human nature. Thanos became a hallmark of Starlin's portfolio that landed him work at Marvel.
"I packed up my bags, one with clothes and one of comics and my references, you know, and got to New York, got off the bus terminal and set the heavy suitcases down," Starlin recalls. "This very nice gentleman came running over and grabbed the one with the comic books and started walking off with it and said, 'Let me help you with this,' and he made it about two steps and realized he was going to herniate himself, so he put it down and walked off. I realized right away that he was planning on stealing it. And I said, 'I think I'm going to like New York.'"
Starlin says his instruction in art largely came after he had moved to New York as a professional. He would take classes at the Art Students League in Manhattan, where he studied anatomy. Starlin credits an instructor for helping him understand perspective and the human body, especially while working on Captain Marvel and Warlock books.
"I got rid of a half dozen ribs that didn't belong there," he jokes.
Starlin, 70, is best known for, well, a few things. For one, he's responsible for pioneering Marvel's "cosmic" era, the trippy, acid-drenched space operas inhabited by the ruler of Titan, Mentor and his son Eros, as well as Mentor's other spawn, Thanos, the death-obsessed nihilist that would storm the screen and ruin everything in Avengers: Infinity War 45 years after he made his print debut in The Invincible Iron Man #55 along with another Starlin creation: Drax the Destroyer. For anyone who is familiar with Starlin's work, especially that of Warlock or The Infinity Gauntlet, one could assume that there was some intoxicating influence behind his creations.
"It was the 1970s, darlin'," Starlin says of drug use. "You know, I mean, everyone was doing it."
He then goes on to recall a time when he was walking around New York after a party and saw a paper bag in the trash with a grease stain on it. While he was waiting for the light to change, he saw something in that grease stain.
"I immediately went home and that grease thing became a character named Eon in the Captain Marvel books," Starlin says. "I just saw that there was this creature sitting there floating in space for me."
But the cosmic realm also appealed to Starlin for, you know, a non-drug influenced reason: He hated drawing horses, cars, tanks. He wasn't big on reality, either.
"I liked making up my own stuff," he says. "The 'cosmic' [era] gave me that avenue. So, I started creating worlds where my stories took place rather than dealing with the restrictions of the real world. That's why I didn't do too many Spider-Man."
In the real world, or non-comic world, Starlin actually really loves the Marvel Cinematic Universe. More specifically, the depictions of his creations, Thanos, Gamora, and Drax, though some things are different on the big screen than in the comics. For example, Starlin makes a cameo in 2019's Avengers: Endgame, appearing with Captain America in a group therapy session with people coping with the loss of, well, half of the world's living things.
- Courtesy of the Henry Ford
In the comics, Thanos has a different motivation: love, death, and the love of Death. In the comics, the big purple nihilist was head-over-heels with the personification of Death (also known as Lady Death and Mistress Death), who is not at all a part of Thanos' cinematic backstory except, perhaps, for a sly nod in the end-credit scene in the first of The Avengers series in 2012 when Thanos is first revealed and flashes a menacing smile when the leader of the Chitauri alien force explains that dealing with the Avengers would be "courting death itself."
Starlin says "only a fool would expect a carbon copy" of what was printed in the comics.
As for the performances, Starlin loves Josh Brolin as Thanos, who he describes as "a big hugger."
"I can't imagine anybody else doing Thanos now and he was never on my radar," he says.
Meanwhile, his Guardians of the Galaxy squad members, Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana, and Drax the Destroyer, played by Dave Bautista, might be some of Starlin's favorite MCU interpretations. He has called Saldana's performance "brilliant" and Bautista, who is a hybrid of Starlin's brain-damaged Drax from The Infinity Watch and the grim Drax they have in the comics now, brings the most laughs.
"I find him the funniest thing in those movies," he says of Bautista. "I mean, the first thing I said to him when we met was, 'Who would've thought somebody who's as big and lumbering as you are would have such great comedic timing?'"
He wasn't prepared to love the movies or the big-screen adaptations of his characters, so much so that he started training himself before the premiere to repeat "I love it, I love it, I love it," just in case it turned out to be anything like DC's sloppy Justice League (2017) or Suicide Squad (2016). Thankfully for Starlin, once Mark Ruffalo's Hulk burst on the screen to battle Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, Starlin knew he had nothing to worry about.
Regarding his relationship with Marvel, well, there was plenty to worry about. While he and the MCU folks are on good terms, Starlin broke up with Marvel publishing last year. Though he's had several rifts with the comic house in the past, this time, he says, the split is for good.
"Publishing is a strange business," he says. "Making money is not always the priority of editorial staff. And at the end there, paying back old grudges was more important than making money."
Starlin says when the movie came out, "they sort of did everything they could to keep me out of the loop. Which I figured was their right, it was their character. But one of the editors actually sabotaged a story of mine when they approved a plot by another writer who was going to be doing a Thanos monthly book that was almost a carbon copy of what I was doing in the graphic novel. And they had plenty of time to change it. They chose not to. And so I just said, if they're going to go this length to sabotage me, there's no future there for me anymore."
Though he may have dissolved his relationship with Marvel publishing, he's nowhere near done when it comes to making cool shit. After suffering an injury (his Sodastream exploded in 2016, injuring his hand and leaving him unable to draw for a while), he's currently somewhere near halfway through his 100-page graphic novel that marks the return of the Milky Way's magic sword-wielding space traveler, Vanth Dreadstar, with Dreadstar Returns. Dreadstar debuted in 1982 for Marvel's Epic Comics imprint. To produce, publish, and distribute the long-awaited installment via Ominous Press, Starlin launched a Kickstarter campaign, which quickly amassed $135k thanks to nearly 1,700 backers. The goal was just $28k.
"Well, it was kind of funny because everybody advised me that this would be a terrible time to do a Kickstarter because everyone's freaked out losing their jobs," he says. "As it turns out, everyone was just looking for something new."
While Starlin was working on the Warlock books, Strange Tales #178-181 in 1975, another award-winning Marvel comic pioneer was just beginning his origin story.
Dearborn's Saladin Ahmed learned to read by reading Marvel comics. His father, Ishmael Ahmed, a well-known local radio show host and co-founder of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) was also into comics and surrounded his son with a community of creatives. Ahmed describes his father as being curious.
"I grew up on Starlin's work," he says. "My Marvel series Black Bolt is sort of in the cosmic psychedelic universe, and it owes a whole lot to the kind of work he was doing in the '70s. There really is a generational Detroit thing here with comics."
His work with graphic novels and comics came later as his first mediums were poetry and fiction. In fact, his first published work was in the Metro Times in the mid-'90s when Ahmed submitted a literary short story for MT's fiction contest. He performed poetry around the city and eventually went to the University of Michigan for English before moving to New York, where he got involved in the science fiction and fantasy communities. During that time, in 2012, he published a fantasy novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon.
"That's actually what made Marvel come to me," he says.
Much of Ahmed's work is inspired by Detroit and his upbringing as an Arab American living in the Midwest. His 2018 mini-series, Abbott, illustrated by Sami Kivelä, is set here and follows a "hard-nosed, chain-smoking tabloid reporter" as she investigates crimes overlooked by police. Then there's Starling in the groundbreaking Miles Morales: Spider-Man series, which Ahmed has been writing since 2018. The Black Latino teen who, you guessed it, got bit by a radioactive spider after Peter Parker dies, has an ally in Starling, granddaughter of classic Spidey villain, Vulture, who just so happens to be a Detroiter living in New York. And then there's Dearborn's Fadi Fadlalah, better known as Amulet, a gentle giant and Arab American sidekick to Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani superhero and admirer of Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel), whose powers are activated by an inhuman alien mist. Amulet serves as a protector of sorts and wields his own magic shielding powers.
Midwestern representation in comics is important to Ahmed, but so is representing people of color and other cultures, which is why he hopes his legacy will be remembered for having "expanded the field." As a single father to twins living in metro Detroit, he takes the impact his characters may have on the youth seriously.
"Marvel was sort of a beacon, but even then things were pretty, pretty bleak, you know, but it sort of offered enough examples to help me realize what was missing," he says. "And I definitely thought about that even at a pretty young age about who was there and who wasn't there, and I was attached to characters like the Black Panther who had quote-unquote 'strange' names like mine. And my grandfather looks more like T'challa than he does Steve Rogers. So I was drawn to those sorts of characters in Marvel, but knew that there wasn't enough of them around in general," he says.
"That, to me, is why licensed work is so appealing and especially in a universe like Marvel, where so many people — eventually these characters trickle from comics and cartoons in a film, into T-shirts, and kids around the world see them," he says. "It matters to me."
Without Detroit's Arvell Jones, there would be no Misty Knight, a Detroit beat cop turned NYPD officer turned private investigator who, years later, would appear on three different Marvel TV shows (Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders), and has a badass bionic arm courtesy of the Tony Stark. Co-created by Jones' partner Tony Isabella, Knight made her debut in 1975 and became the first major commercial Black female superhero, inspired by a combination of Jones' mother and his then-girlfriend.
"I think I'm probably the first African American comic book artist to create a character for Marvel," Jones says. "When I created her, I was thinking of my mother, who was fearless and very smart. And my girlfriend, who was very sassy."
Jones grew up on Detroit's east side. His father worked at Ford Motor Company, and his mother was a nurse at Parkside Hospital (one of the first Jim Crow hospitals in the city). He recalls his mother carrying a snub-nose .38 in her purse.
"I would say, 'You're a nurse!' She would say, 'Hey, it's dangerous out there for a female, and I'm the best person to shoot somebody. I can shoot them and then fix them up,'" he says. "She was fearless."
Growing up, Jones was drawn to filmmaking. At one point, his father took him to Hudson's to buy an 8mm camera. When the salesperson explained that the camera required accessories and film, his father retracted his offer. Instead, Jones was handed a stack of paper and some No. 2 pencils and was told that as soon as he created something someone might want to buy, then he could get the camera.
Though he never got the camera, he started tracing and he and his brother would come up with characters and stories. He fixated on DC's Superman and Batman before moving to Marvel. When he was 13, Jones was, as he said, feeling "bodacious" and decided to send some of his drawings to Marvel for critique. One day the prolific comic artist Jack "The King" Kirby, who under writer-editor Stan Lee, created Thor, Iron Man, the Black Panther, the Hulk, and Captain America, called Jones to follow up on his submissions.
"He called me and told me he had looked at my drawing, and he said that I had potential and if I kept at it, I could actually do it," he says.
Middle school and high school guidance counselors felt differently. He recalls one counselor who looked at his work and told him that "artists die poor" and suggested Jones look into a more profitable field: automobile design.
"I did some automobile drawings. And when I was graduating from junior high, I'm trying to get into high school. I ended up showing my portfolio of badly drawn cars for the admissions counselor at Cass Tech and he put me in the commercial art department, where I was told that I would probably do better. But I still had that fever to want to draw comic books," he says. "They weren't exactly encouraging me, but they let me do what I wanted to do to a degree. So I took figure drawing classes at [what later became] the College for Creative Studies in the evenings after school, and then I got obsessive about it and I started publishing a newsletter, The Fan Informer."
Because there was no internet, nor was there access to a group of like-minded comic-obsessed kids, he and his brother Desmond created a fanzine. His father bought them a mimeograph machine so they could publish it, and Jones used his job as a paper boy to distribute it and to raise additional money to keep the newsletter running and, eventually, improve its production value, at which point he started meeting other artists.
Jones' hustle didn't stop there. He worked out a deal to trade his sign calligraphy skills to Ableman's Bookstore in Hamtramck in return for comic books. That's where he met cover artist and longtime Marvel and DC penciller Richard Buckler, a volunteer for the Detroit Triple Fan Fair, one of the earliest comic conventions. From the bookstore, Jones worked at a sign shop before going on to work for Marvel and DC. Buckler urged Jones to come to New York with him, and so he did. He worked as Buckler's assistant for two years, and one of the works he helped Buckler with was what Marvel was billing as their "jungle action" series, which was the Black Panther's first solo feature. Jones made an impression on the higher-ups when Buckler went out of town but had a deadline, so he asked Jones to finish the pages and turn them in.
"The production manager at the time, John Verpoorten, who was this big mountain man, said 'Richard didn't do these pages, did he? Tell the truth,'" he says. "I said, 'I did them.' He was like, 'Well, good. Now do this book,'" Jones recalls. "My voice got all high. I felt like I'd done something wrong, you know, but he was OK with it."
The Black Panther was the first Black superhero to land a major book, as he did in 1977, a decade after his first appearance in The Fantastic Four #52. Though other Black characters had been included in Marvel canon — including Misty Knight, who appeared in a published work just two months before X-Men's Storm — the introduction of a mainstream African King who led an uncolonized nation was more than a jungle action feature — it came as a response to the civil unrest of the 1960s.
- Courtesy of the Henry Ford
- The Black Panther was the first Black superhero to land a major book, as he did in 1977.
"It wasn't a huge deal to me," Stan Lee said before the release of The Black Panther movie on the topic of introducing a Black superhero to mainstream comic audiences. "A good many of our people here in America are not white. You've got to recognize that you've got to include them in whatever you do."
But Jones says it wasn't cool to be Black and into comics, though through visiting various conventions he discovered a Black comic community "lurking."
"I just think when we started making Black characters, they were like an oddity at Marvel. Marvel was like, 'Why are we creating these Black characters? Because, you know, Black people aren't reading comic books.' And I would go, 'Um, excuse me, I'm right here!'"
Jones now jokes about how, back in the day, a stack of comic books would never have landed him a girl. "Nowadays," he says, "I don't seem to have a problem." He says his wife, who he describes as being a "fighter," enjoys all the women dressed as Misty Knight who come up to Jones at conventions to show off their bionic arms and red catsuits.
"It's always just been fun for me," Jones says of working in comics. "I think my approach to trying to make any kind of money was always to do what was fun. And so I used to tell my students when I taught at CCS, if you're not enjoying this, there's no sense in doing it. I used to tell my students all the time, 'You know, you're an artist, that means you got the license to be crazy!'"
The Marvel multiverse is, if nothing else, batshit crazy, and none of the batshit craziness of it all would be possible if not for the art of collaboration and attention to detail. From the comic lineage to the larger-than-life cinematic retellings and reimaginings of decades-old stories and characters, at Marvel there are often many cooks in the kitchen, even when it comes to the creation of a now-iconic film prop like the Infinity Gauntlet — Thanos' big ol' flashy gold glove where he stores his precious Infinity Stones so he can snap his fingers and destroy half the universe like a petulant little boss baby.
Metro Detroit's Tim Flattery had a hand in, well, designing the physical hand that would punish the Avengers across two films, including 2019's three-hour opus, Avengers: Endgame, inspired, of course, by Starlin's original work.
Flattery, who like so many involved in the Marvel world, grew up on comics, says he and his brother hoarded both Marvel and DC books in their closet. He later attended the College for Creative Studies for transportation and industrial design, but always had an itch to work in movies. Without any real outlet to be able to practice film design, he went rogue. Like, really rogue.
"Around my third year, I had started just like working on a separate portfolio in my own naive way what concept design would be for film because I didn't really have a real great grasp of it living in Michigan," he says. "I went out to the West Coast my junior year during spring break and kind of knocked on doors of different effects companies because that's all I knew to contact."
He ended up cold-calling Apogee Inc., led by Academy Award winner John Dykstra, who pioneered special effects on the Star Wars films. Dykstra had what Flattery calls a "falling out" with Lucasfilm and started his own special-effects company. Dykstra looked at Flattery's portfolio and invited him to spend his summer working on commercials and a feature film.
"When I went back to finish my last year at CCS, I showed my program chair," he says. "I said, 'Look, this is real. Here's the work I did at Apogee this summer. I want to just solely focus on film,' and senior year he agreed to it. Once I finished school, as soon as I graduated, I packed up my car and moved out to L.A. to try and 'make it.' And then I just went from there."
Since heading out to L.A., he's worked on more than 100 films, including Batman Returns and Batman Forever (he designed the Batmobile in Batman Forever and the penguin jetpacks in Batman Returns), Tron, Men in Black 1 & 2, several installments of the Star Trek franchise, and a slew of Marvel entries, like Captain Marvel (he designed some Kree gadgets), spacecraft for Guardians of the Galaxy 2, and The Infinity Gauntlet.
"I was just one of three people working on it. Kevin Feige at Marvel, I mean, they're very in tune with what's been done in comics and making sure that how we translated the film pays homage to what's been done in comics, but not necessarily to say that it has to look like you have to get the same emotional response to the design that you got when you read the comic," Flattery says. "So, The Infinity Gauntlet carried over into film mostly based on inspiration from comics, but it originally started before I came on the film. There's a core group of visual-development artists that work under Marvel's roof where multiple people take a pass at its design. That's why you don't see perfectly cut gemstones in the Gauntlet now, they're very rough, the Infinity Stones are just like they were mined out of the ground, and that was my take on it. All the finishes were based on my passes."
The finished product? One of the most menacing and iconic hand accessories ever on film.
Though Flattery says his love for comics has no allegiance, he lowkey says that Marvel has something DC films lack: soul.
"How Marvel transitioned from comics to applying that storytelling into film was super successful," he says. "As with DC films and those transitions, they don't seem to have the same soul that Marvel has kept from the comic lineage."
Starlin is a bit more direct in his favoritism.
"I just find most of them rather humorless," he says of DC films. "Marvel had the good sense to lighten up every so often. Just so you're not deluged with a lot of grim stuff. Where DC sorta came along and said, 'We don't want to do anything like Marvel.' That seemed to be not the brightest thing to do. Meanwhile, Marvel was shoveling in the money."
While Starlin liked DC's Wonder Woman, he thought Aqua Man was generic. "They have some just awful ones like The Justice League and Suicide Squad. There's been so many, there's been a number of really bad movies out there. Comic book things," he says. "And so far I've hit four for four. Can't get much more lucky than that."
Marvel: Universe of Heroes premieres on Thursday, July 16 and will run through Jan. 31, 2021 at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation; 20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn; 313-982-6001; thehenryford.com. Tickets start at $10.
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