Marvel Comics is one of the two biggest comic publishers active in the United States today, the other being DC Comics.
Marvel began its life as Timely Comics, founded in 1939 by Martin Goodman as the comic branch of his pulp empire. It began by publishing scifi, horror, and western anthologies, one of which happened to be named Marvel Mystery Comics. Timely's biggest sellers at this time were the superheroes Captain America, Sub-Mariner, and the Android Human Torch (predecessor to the Fantastic Four character who would later go on to take the same name to new heights).
After World War II ended, sales of superhero comics began to suffer. Timely's big three ceased printing, and the company changed its name to Atlas in 1950. Atlas published anthologies and single-story comics in a wide variety of genres, and made some sporadic efforts to revive its superheroes, but with little success.
Around 1947, it became part of a holding company founded by Goodman known as Magazine Management, which also published men's adventure and erotic magazines, some of which later became pornographic magazines, as well as humor, celebrity and movie magazines. This company, although later important, was obscure to the public and even its employees; as one-time Marvel editor-in-chief Roy Thomas once said: "I was startled to learn in '65 that Marvel was just part of a parent company called Magazine Management."
In 1956, Atlas switched from distributing comics itself to going via the American News Company, the biggest and most powerful magazine and comic distributor in the USA. Unfortunately, ANC was shortly thereafter forced out of business due to unlawful business practices, and Atlas was forced to turn to National Comics, owned by their rival, DC, for distribution. This drastically reduced the number of comics Atlas was able to get onto shelves. This, plus a recession in 1957, forced Atlas to retrench, and for a time relied on art they had commissioned but not yet published.
Atlas changed its name to Marvel Comics in 1961, and the first comic published under the new name was issue 3 of the scifi anthology Amazing Adventures. Following DC's successful revival of superheroes in 1958—1960, Goodman had one of his staff writers, Stan Lee, come up with their own superhero team, the Fantastic Four. This team subverted many existing superhero tropes by eschewing secret identities (and, for some time, costumes), having a monster as a member of the team, and having the personalities of the members clash regularly. With The Comics Code in full force, Marvel began aggressively creating more and more superheroes, drawn from the considerable energy and talents of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko. It was during this time that many of their most popular characters were introduced.
Goodman later sold Magazine Management to the Perfect Film and Chemical Corporation in 1968, which renamed itself Cadence Industries in 1973, at the same time renaming its magazine subsidiary as the Marvel Comics Group. The latter was the first step taking into turning Marvel into the comic book giant it is today.
Marvel's big innovation was introducing characterization and personal problems to a greater extent than had ever been done with superheroes. Spider-Man in particular suffered from insecurity, teenage angst, and trying to pay the bills in addition to fighting bank robbers. While this caused controversy at first, it ultimately proved popular with readers, with the result that Marvel ended up massively exceeding DC in popularity, as well as drawing in teenagers and, later, adults who would previously have been considered too old to read comics. DC would later experience similar success when Kirby and Ditko started contributing to it.
From the start, Marvel's comics were tied to the real world to a much greater extent than those of DC or other companies. Characters lived in New York, not a fictional city like Metropolis or Gotham. Real-life events often impacted the plot; for example, Fantastic Four plots revolved around the space race and the 1962 stock market crash.
Also, surprisingly for the modern reader, events proceeded in approximately real time for the first few years, with one year passing the comics for every year that passed in the real world — Spider-Man and the Human Torch both started off as teenagers in high school, but over a few years, graduated and went on to college. Also, when Namor was reintroduced, the writers actually came up with an explanation as to where he had been for 20 in-universe years. However, around 1968, things were stretched out by the introduction of 'Marvel time', in which a year in the comics corresponded to three years in the real world. This had morphed into full-blown Comic-Book Time by about 1980.
Due to Lee's busy schedule, he implemented a manner of writing comics known as the Marvel Method, in which the writer, rather than writing a full script, just gave the artist a story synopsis, and left details like pacing and panel layout to the penciller. Afterward, Lee would receive the finished pencils from the artists and write (or rewrite if the artist added a preliminary draft) the dialogue and/or captions. This, coupled with Marvel's seemingly more respectful treatment of artists, served to further bolster its popularity with fans. However, Ditko in 1966 and Kirby in 1970 eventually came to the end of their patience with being relegated to work-for-hire contracts that seemed to grow increasingly unfair while Lee got all the plaudits, and jumped ship.
In 1971, Marvel further innovated by violating The Comics Code. Lee, at the urging of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare wrote a Spider-Man story with an anti-drug message. Since the Code forbade any mention of drugs, doing this story was a radical action in comic publishing. When the story proved a success despite opposition, it opened the door to comics unapproved by the Code, ushering in the so-called the Bronze Age and bringing sex and violence to the medium. The story also prompted swift changes in the Code itself, so that when DC followed suit with their own anti-drug story in the pages of Green Lantern, the book kept the Code stamp.
Marvel expanded its line with licensed properties throughout the 70s and 80s, and was instrumental in the development of toy-based fiction. Micronauts and ROM: Space Knight significantly outlasted their original toylines, and led to a partnership with Hasbro to relaunch G.I. Joe and create the Transformers. Comic Book Adaptations were also a staple from Marvel in this period, as the cable TV and home video markets were in their infancy. Marvel also promoted creator-owned work through its Epic Comics imprint, and kid-friendly fare under the Star Comics banner. They also helped to pioneer the Crisis Crossover with the twelve-issue limited series Secret Wars.
Despite early successes in those decades, Marvel began losing sales to DC after 1986, both as a result of many of its writers and artists defecting to the latter, and DC's shocking deconstructions Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, as well as the epic Crisis on Infinite Earths. The flop of Marvel's New Universe line led to the firing of editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, whose continuity-driven editorial style had led to some of those defections to DC. The company suffered a further setback in 1992, when seven of its top writers and artists left to found Image Comics. The subsequent increase in Executive Meddling led to Marvel having a major contributing role in the bursting of the collector bubble, and in 1996, Marvel was forced to file for bankruptcy.
Following several reorganizations, buyouts, and layoffs, Marvel emerged from bankruptcy in 2000, and has been reasonably successful since then. In late 2009, it was bought out by Disney for $4 billion. Despite that, some of the only changes to the company's business structure included becoming the publishing arm for the comic versions of a few of Disney's properties, including once again becoming the comic book publishing home of the Star Wars franchise in 2015, Disney's high profile purchase of 2012, when its current contract with Dark Horse Comics ended.
See Marvel Comics Characters for an index of the characters in the Universe, and check Marvel Comics Series for an index of all the series published by Marvel Comics, both inside and outside the larger continuity. For the films and Animated Adaptations produced by the company, see the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel Universe and Marvel Animation. For the anime series produced by Madhouse using Marvel Universe characters, see Marvel Anime.