You can probably guess that the movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is based on Spider-Man comics. But Spider-Man comics also exist within the world of Spider-Verse; the movie uses comics as a valuable tool for exposition about its various spider characters, and Miles’ roommate can even be seen reading them.
“How could there be Spider-Man comics in a universe in which Spider-Man is a real superhero?” I can hear you saying. “Did he license his likeness? To a company called Marvel Comics? To print adaptations of his true adventures?”
Oh, dear Reader. Yes. In fact, the idea that Marvel Comics exists within the Marvel Comics Universe is almost as old as that Universe itself.
There is a Marvel Comics inside the Marvel Universe
In 1963, less than two years after The Fantastic Four #1 kicked off the modern Marvel Universe, the book’s creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, put themselves into The Fantastic Four. And not as a cheeky background cameo.
The Fantastic Four #10 finds Kirby and Lee minding their own business, scripting and drawing a Fantastic Four adventure, when Doctor Doom barges into their office. On pain of death, he orders them to call up Mr. Fantastic and say that he must come down to the office to work out a plot with them. The supervillain wanted to isolate Reed Richards and kidnap him, and the plan works. Given Kirby and Lee’s status as the official chroniclers of the Fantastic Four’s adventures, Reed doesn’t suspect a thing.
But there’s more to this inclusion than cracking the fourth wall. Among the many sea changes in the American comics industry that Stan Lee helped to push forward in his time at Marvel was that creators should be more visible to the reader. His editorial asides and cute nicknames for his colleagues seem like a charming affectation now, but in the early American comics industry it had been common for comic creators to work completely uncredited.
Putting himself and Jack Kirby into a Fantastic Four adventure was a way to underscore to readers that their heroes came from somewhere. And if fans wanted their adventures to retain the high caliber they expected, they should expect the publisher to keep Lee and Kirby on the book.
And although The Fantastic Four #10 arrived in the early days in the Marvel’s history, the idea that a fictional version of Marvel Comics published true superhero stories in the Marvel Universe has been called back to.
In 1976’s The Fantastic Four #176, Roy Thomas, George Perez and Joe Sinnott followed in Lee and Kirby’s footsteps by depicting another supervillain visit to the Marvel Comics offices. This time, the Impossible Man barges in on a frenzied Roy Thomas and George Perez, who are making a desperate appeal to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The problem?
The deadline for the next issue of The Fantastic Four is approaching, but the Fantastic Four haven’t picked up their phone in a week.
“How can we do our authorized F. F. comic-mag if they don’t tell us what they’ve been into?” Thomas wails.
Kirby suggests they make up a story about the Fantastic Four, “instead of drawing what really happened.” The rest of the bullpen is gobsmacked by the idea. Impossible Man interrupts, demanding that they make a comic about him. They hesitate — “We did this guy already, years ago!” Lee recalls, “A lot of our readers didn’t like that issue, because he looked too silly.” — and the villain gets violent.
The real Thomas and Perez used the ensuing mad scuffle to pack even more Marvel office cameos in Fantastic Four #176, immortalizing the fictional versions of Marvel production manager John Verpoorten, editor in chief Archie Goodwin, writer Gerry Conway and more. At the story’s end, the Impossible Man does not get his comic.
The reference to Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck puts a layer of ironic hindsight to the issue. Two years after Fantastic Four #176, Gerber would be removed from Howard the Duck over issues of creative control and would eventually sue Marvel for the rights to the character. Right around that time, artist Neal Adams would attempt to form a “Comics Creators Guild” with several top Marvel creators onboard, to no avail.
Being visible and endeared to the reader was still a valuable power for comics creators to wield. But the Marvel Comics inside the Marvel Comics Universe hasn’t just been about the Fantastic Four and creators rights.
The Long Boxes
Dan Slott’s 2004 She-Hulk series wasn’t your typical superhero story. Instead of zipping around fighting bad guys with her fists, its heroine found herself with a once-in-a-lifetime job at a law firm — but only if she showed up to work as her diminutive human persona, Jennifer Walters, Esq., instead of She-Hulk.
In that book’s second issue, Slott, a lifelong Marvel fan, added a new layer to the role of Marvel Comics within the Marvel Universe, by revealing the “Long Boxes.”
Jen’s firm specializes in superhuman law, and that means that in addition to a legal library of mundane precedent, it has a library of superhuman precedent: Every Marvel Comic ever published.
As clerk/librarian Stu Cicero explains, “Most Marvel books are licensed from the real heroes. And any issue published before 2002 bears the seal of the Comics Code of America.”
“I get it,” Jen responds, “Since they’re a federal agency, that makes all of these legal documents.”
The Comics Code of America is presumably the in-universe equivalent of the real Comics Code Authority, which was not a federal agency at all — but then again, the real world doesn’t have a real Spider-Man, either.
So if you saw Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and thought the idea of Marvel Comics existing inside a Marvel Comics universe was cute and meta, you’re not wrong. But let this this trip through comic history be a lesson to you: Never underestimate the extent to which comics creators are willing fold their universes into an ouroboros of storytelling at the drop of a hat.