The online comics magazine Hogan's Alley ran an interview by Tom Heintjes with professor and author Eliot Borenstein about his new book, Marvel Comics in the 1970s: The World Inside Your Head. Link to the interview here.
Marvel Comics as we know them was born in the 1960s, under the singular editorial voice of Stan Lee, with his group of brilliant artist/writers like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. These comics revolutionized the superhero genre, giving it character, personality, pathos, and humor. But, as Borenstein says, in the 1970s, as Lee relinquished control to a group of writers who had been fans of the'60s comics, they grew more wild, more trippy, and more idiosyncratic to each writer's individual vision.
"It's not just that Stan's attention had turned elsewhere, because it definitely had, but that the people who took over as editor-in-chief had no interest in micromanaging. The writer/editor system, in which senior writers got to edit their own work, allowed for a lot of freedom. Of course, it also often meant a real lack of editing and didn't help Marvel's notorious deadline problem. Also, the relaxed corporate culture coincided with the huge expansion of Marvel's line after they were freed from the newsstand/distributor quota that limited the number of books they could put out and after the Comics Code was altered so they could do horror books. Throw in Marvel's desperate attempt to follow every pop cultural trend—martial arts, sci-fi, etc.—and there was simply too much going on. Jim Shooter's ascension to editor-in-chief changed all that. Marvel became much more professional, the books came out on time, but the spirit of innovation was mostly crushed. All the writers I focus on left Marvel under Shooter—in many cases, against their will."
Borenstein has a favorite of these 1970s writers:
"I make no bones about the fact that Steve Gerber is my personal favorite. His sense of the absurd, his sardonic wit and his profound disappointment with contemporary American life made him stand out. In Howard the Duck and his Man-Thing stories—not to mention Omega the Unknown and his run on The Defenders—Gerber's comics showed the power of a personal authorial voice and a strong point of view."
In fact Borenstein's academic interest in 1970s Marvel came from teaching Gerber and Gene Colan's Howard the Duck comics in his class at NYU.
"My students are always divided on it, which is fine—disliking something can be as instructive as liking it. But what was really interesting, and what I would highlight in the lectures, was the ways in which it is not a graphic novel. It is not low-context, portable or in any way self-contained. And as a Marvel product, it had to adhere to some conventions even as it broke with others. So Howard was useful both for its brilliance and innovation and for its limitations. Along the way I realized that this was, in fact, the story of the better comics produced by Marvel in the 1970s: really creative and intelligent work that would always be hampered by the strictures of the times and the industry."