Excelsior!

Jim Galton, The Man Who Kept Marvel Comics Alive

“Would you like us to create a character for your next motion picture or TV production?”

Jim Galton’s tenure as the president of Marvel Comics got off to an alarming start. He was just settling into his new desk when his predecessor—who had never been informed of his own firing—returned from vacation, walked into the office and demanded, “Who are you?” A stunned Galton immediately ushered him to lunch at the Players Club to break the news, whereupon the outgoing president clutched his chest and fell to the floor.

Such was the daunting work culture cultivated by Galton’s abrasive boss, Sheldon Feinberg, CEO of Marvel’s parent company, Cadence Industries. From the start, Feinberg made it clear to Galton that Marvel’s future was uncertain, unless its performance could be turned around in two years.

Within months, the solution serendipitously appeared when Marvel editor Roy Thomas pitched an adaptation of an upcoming science-fiction movie that was in preproduction in Tunisia. Galton hesitantly approved, and it turned out that making a Star Wars comic book was a good decision—in fact, he would later say, it saved the struggling Marvel.

Galton, who died on June 12 at the age of 92, was in charge of Marvel from 1975 to 1990, a stretch in which the company attained corporate respectability, expanded from newsprint to graphic novels, and broke industry sales records. He relentlessly pursued merchandising deals, and steered Marvel’s first major forays into Hollywood.

When Galton arrived at Marvel, from the paperback publisher Popular Library, he hadn’t looked at a comic book since the Captain America adventures of the 1940s, and still regarded them as kids’ stuff. After he learned that Marvel’s magazine arm was publishing titles like Stag and Male, he recoiled, and then quickly sold them off, deciding that the corporate proximity to Spidey Super Stories was inappropriate. Well into his tenure, he continued to consider comics a medium that was a few rungs down the ladder, an outlook that sharply contrasted with that of Stan Lee, who often invoked Shakespeare and Picasso. When a Los Angeles Times reporter asked Galton if comics were literature, he replied: “I think you have to define literature. Is Judith Krantz literature? Then comics are literature.”

Perhaps, as they say in politics, his thinking on the issue evolved. Galton was smart and flexible enough to eventually shepherd the company into an era of higher-quality printing, graphic novels, and placement in bookstore chains. He strove to establish independence from independent newsstand wholesalers, and embraced the so-called “direct market,” in which dedicated comic shops—largely a domain of adult consumers—would purchase product at a greater discount in return for waiving the option to return unsold inventory.

In the mid-1970s, Marvel licensed several characters for live-action television; Spider-Man, the Hulk, Doctor Strange, and Captain America made it to the air. After Warner Bros.’ Superman movie became a blockbuster hit in 1978, Marvel began a campaign of full-page ads in Variety, attempting to entice potential licensees (“The Man Called Nova is but one of over 100 exciting Marvel characters ready right now”) or to farm out its creative powers (“Would you like us to create a character for your next motion picture or TV production?”)

Eventually, Galton and Stan Lee—who’d been a vocal, almost solitary booster of the idea that the Marvel Universe was perfect for Hollywood—convinced its parent company, Cadence Industries, to invest money in launching a Los Angeles animation studio. Galton’s instinct, again, was in putting comics where the children were—and in the early 1980s, that meant Saturday morning television. Decades before there was a Lego movie franchise, Marvel was using comic-book storytelling skills to build fictional universes for toy lines like G.I. Joe and the Transformers. But the movies would have to wait. Outside of the 1986 disaster that was Howard the Duck, and low-budget, direct-to-video Captain America and Punisher movies, nothing escaped development hell.  

Galton was one of a half-dozen Marvel co-owners from 1983, when Cadence privatized to avoid a takeover from the investor Mario Gabelli, and 1986, when it was sold to New World Pictures. He stayed on as President throughout New World’s tenure, before retiring in 1990, shortly before Ron Perelman’s Andrews Group took the company public.

A few months earlier, Jim Galton claimed one parting victory: the first issue of a new Spider-Man series sold more than two million copies. It was the best-selling comic book in history.