It’s hard to imagine that Stan Lee – seventeen years old in 1941, the youngest editor ever hired – knew his superheroes would fly that far. Today, eighty years after the birth of “Timely Comics”, a book published by Gestalten with Liz Stinson tells the story of Marvel, and it does so from a unique point of view: graphic design. “Marvel by Design” is a volume of 320 pages, which with many illustrations reveals all the details of the “Marvel method” – a production system that knew how to enhance the designers’ individual talent and at the same time convey it in a codified and careful canon of colors , pull and grid – e.g. demonstrates the influence of comics in popular culture, graphic design and art, until it goes into the third millennium and goes straight to the screens of our smartphones.
The first part of the book is a kind of illustrated encyclopedic dissertation that decodes the Marvel universe from the point of view of a graphic design. The premise dismantles any romantic vision of the creation of comics – the artist bent over his drawing table, coffee, cigarettes and the masterpiece born overnight. In fact, the creation of a story is the distillation of an assembly line that includes several figures, each with its role described: from the editor, the puppet master, who keeps the threads throughout the process, to the author, who writes the story and the script; from the designer, the colorist and the colorist, shifting in the relay that will lead to the finish line on the final tables, to the letter, the “sound technician” of the cartoons, who with synesthetic knowledge transforms words and sound effects into texts and onomatopoeias. Hundreds of tables and illustrations show how each character has been codified and has undergone continuous development. Starting with the company logo, which was initially not called Marvel but Timely Comics. The mark evoked the patriotic feelings of the time, which would later give life to Captain America’s character: a blue shield, with the lower half in red and white stripes. When the company changed its name to Atlas Comics in 1951, the times were more cosmopolitan: the logo rested on a stylized globe wrapped in a white ribbon.
The images of characters, logos, covers clearly tell the graphic and artistic intuitions of the best Marvel designers, and the mutual influence on the fashion of the moment. An example for everyone, the cover of Jim Steranko from the late 60s, psychedelic colors and optical motifs. Other parts of this encyclopedic section reveal all the techniques that by flipping through a story are not perceived but perceived. For example, a cartoon logo design – square if we are talking about espionage, pointed or floating to evoke magic, torn or burned for a supernatural atmosphere; “Each logo is designed to live in the same world as the character”. The role of the layout of each table is also fundamental to a storytelling that captures the reader by preventing him from looking elsewhere, of the color palettes coded according to strict rules, of the art of the letters, which includes not only the texts but all the graphics signs that they allow the reader to “see” a noise or “feel” a feeling: “at Marvel, any literary designer is a graphic designer, even if he does not know it”.
But perhaps even more interesting, in the second part of the book, verify how stages and changes in American culture from the 1940s to the present have often been documented in Marvel comics, at times persistent, other times even foreseen. For example, the “afrofuturistic” character of Black Panther, the first black superhero. Designed in 1966 by Jack Kirby, it burned the “Green Lantern” John Stewart created by his eternal rival, DC Comics of Superman and Batman six years earlier. Or Ms. Marvel, a superwoman who, when she was not wearing the costume, worked in a women’s magazine and fought for equal pay. It was 1977. In the words of Jason Chambers, Professor of Advertising History at the University of Illinois: “You can pull the line from Barack Obama back to Luke Cage and Falcon (two black Marvel superheroes, red). There are many things in that line, but certainly comics among them.
Another parallel path, the one with art and popular visual culture. The affiliation with pop art was so clear that Stan Lee at the time decided to change the name of the publisher to Marvel Pop Art, to emphasize the cultural influence of his comics and finally go into art history. Regular readers did not like it, and Lee quickly withdrew. But the course of events was written, and references to the Marvel style ended up everywhere, from Roy Lichtenstein’s works to Andy Warhol’s, from the packages of baby cereal to the cover of the Pink Floyd album “A Saucerful of Secrets.”
And the technological revolution of the last twenty years was not enough to obliterate the influence of comics in popular culture, as their iconographic heritage has been in our smartphones for a long time. The messages we exchange on Whatsapp or Telegram are contained in balloons just like those in comics, and the mood icons that signal our mood, the smileys with drops, red with anger or with heart-shaped eyes, would not exist today. If the cartoonists had not codified our emotions into universal graphic characters. The connection between our world and the world of comics is destined to last a long time.
To order the book: https://gestalten.com/products/marvel-by-design
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