In 1968, while selling 50 million comic books a year, company founder Goodman revised the constraining distribution arrangement with Independent News he had reached under duress during the Atlas years, allowing him now to release as many titles as demand warranted. In the fall of that year he sold Marvel Comics and his other publishing businesses to the Perfect Film and Chemical Corporation, which grouped them as the subsidiary Magazine Management Company, with Goodman remaining as publisher. In 1969, Goodman finally ended his distribution deal with Independent by signing with Curtis Circulation Company.
In 1971, the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare approached Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Stan Lee to do a comic book story about drug abuse. Lee agreed and wrote a three-part Spider-Man story portraying drug use as dangerous and unglamorous. However, the industry’s self-censorship board, the Comics Code Authority, refused to approve the story because of the presence of narcotics, deeming the context of the story irrelevant. Lee, with Goodman’s approval, published the story regardless in The Amazing Spider-Man #96–98 (May–July 1971), without the Comics Code seal. The market reacted well to the storyline, and the CCA subsequently revised the Code the same year.
Goodman retired as publisher in 1972 and installed his son, Chip, as publisher, Shortly thereafter, Lee succeeded him as publisher and also became Marvel’s president for a brief time. During his time as president, he appointed as editor-in-chief Roy Thomas, who added “Stan Lee Presents” to the opening page of each comic book.
A series of new editors-in-chief oversaw the company during another slow time for the industry. Once again, Marvel attempted to diversify, and with the updating of the Comics Code achieved moderate to strong success with titles themed to horror (The Tomb of Dracula), martial arts, (Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu), sword-and-sorcery (Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja), satire (Howard the Duck) and science fiction (2001: A Space Odyssey, “Killraven” in Amazing Adventures, Star Trek, and, late in the decade, the long-running Star Wars series). Some of these were published in larger-format black and white magazines, under its Curtis Magazines imprint. Marvel was able to capitalize on its successful superhero comics of the previous decade by acquiring a new newsstand distributor and greatly expanding its comics line. Marvel pulled ahead of rival DC Comics in 1972, during a time when the price and format of the standard newsstand comic were in flux. Goodman increased the price and size of Marvel’s November 1971 cover-dated comics from 15 cents for 36 pages total to 25 cents for 52 pages. DC followed suit, but Marvel the following month dropped its comics to 20 cents for 36 pages, offering a lower-priced product with a higher distributor discount.
Goodman, now disconnected from Marvel, set up a new company called Seaboard Periodicals in 1974, reviving Marvel’s old Atlas name for a new Atlas Comics line, but this lasted only a year and a half. In the mid-1970s a decline of the newsstand distribution network affected Marvel. Cult hits such as Howard the Duck fell victim to the distribution problems, with some titles reporting low sales when in fact the first specialty comic book stores resold them at a later date. But by the end of the decade, Marvel’s fortunes were reviving, thanks to the rise of direct market distribution—selling through those same comics-specialty stores instead of newsstands.
Marvel held its own comic book convention, Marvelcon ’75, in spring 1975, and promised a Marvelcon ’76. At the 1975 event, Stan Lee used a Fantastic Four panel discussion to announce that Jack Kirby, the artist co-creator of most of Marvel’s signature characters, was returning to Marvel after having left in 1970 to work for rival DC Comics. In October 1976, Marvel, which already licensed reprints in different countries, including the UK, created a superhero specifically for the British market. Captain Britain debuted exclusively in the UK, and later appeared in American comics.
In 1978, Jim Shooter became Marvel’s editor-in-chief. Although a controversial personality, Shooter cured many of the procedural ills at Marvel, including repeatedly missed deadlines. During Shooter’s nine-year tenure as editor-in-chief, Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s run on the Uncanny X-Men and Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil became critical and commercial successes. Shooter brought Marvel into the rapidly evolving direct market, institutionalized creator royalties, starting with the Epic Comics imprint for creator-owned material in 1982; introduced company-wide crossover story arcs with Contest of Champions and Secret Wars; and in 1986 launched the ultimately unsuccessful New Universe line to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Marvel Comics imprint. Star Comics, a children-oriented line differing from the regular Marvel titles, was briefly successful during this period.
Despite Marvel’s successes in the early 1980s, it lost ground to rival DC in the latter half of the decade as many former Marvel stars defected to the competitor. DC scored critical and sales victories with titles and limited series such as Watchmen, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Byrne’s revamp of Superman, and Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing.