Sunday, October 28, 2012

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

I really enjoyed Sean Howe's dense and candid history of Marvel Comics, which was just released earlier this month by HarperCollins. Billing itself on the inside cover as "an unvarnished, unauthorized behind-the-scenes account" of The House That Stan and Jack Built, MARVEL COMICS: THE UNTOLD STORY benefits from Howe's tenacious research and his zeal for truth, even if it sometimes shows Marvel and its employees in a negative light.

Now, those of you with a heavy interest in comic book history--those who eagerly anticipate each issue of Roy Thomas' breezy blast-from-the-past publication ALTER EGO and lament TwoMorrows' late, great magazine COMIC BOOK ARTIST (for my money, the best and best-researched magazine about comic books there ever was)--may find THE UNTOLD STORY occasionally redundant. Yet Howe spins the tale in such detail and such a fair-minded voice that I didn't mind hearing the stories again.

Marvel, of course, was not always Marvel. It was originally Timely Comics when pulp magazine publisher Martin Goodman started the company in 1939. In 1941, he hired his wife's teenage cousin, Stanley Martin Lieber, to edit the comic books. Lieber, who anticipated a career writing important novels, credited his comic book work under the name "Stan Lee."

Howe covers the early Timely/Atlas years well enough, but the book really picks up steam when Marvel did: 1961, the year FANTASTIC FOUR #1 was published. The company--and the comic book industry--would never be the same.

While Lee, the vivacious public face of the company, created an ebullient public image for himself and Marvel, coining corny phrases like "Face front!" and "Excelsior!" and leaving readers with the idea that Marvel's army of writers, artists, and production staff hung out together all day in the amusement park of a Bullpen, the company was also home to fragile egos, including those of Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko and particularly The King, superstar artist Jack Kirby, who teamed with writer/editor Lee to create nearly every important superhero Marvel had in its stable, but never received what he thought to be proper credit for his work.

After Lee was kicked upstairs to an upper-management position in the early 1970s (and later sent to California, where he tried for decades to interest Hollywood in adapting Marvel properties for the large and small screens), twentysomething Roy Thomas was named Editor, ushering in a New Wave of long-haired, dope-smoking, free-wheeling artists and writers that stretched the boundaries of what kinds of stories could be told in four-color stories. As Marvel's readers aged up towards college level, the company's creators aged down from middle-aged men like Lee and artist John Romita to far-out youngsters like Steve Englehart (who wrote a Captain America story in which a barely disguised Richard Nixon committed suicide in the White House) and Steve Gerber, whose unique Howard the Duck led the way to creators suing Marvel for ownership of their creations.

Howe's story bogs down in later chapters, as the narrative shifts from the comic books' creators and editors to the boardrooms, following Marvel's many subsequent sales to New World Pictures, Revlon CEO Ron Perelman, and Disney, to name a few corporate entities. I found these stories--important though they are to Marvel's history--to be less gripping than the more human aspects, such as the job-related stress that (may have) brought early deaths to some personnel, such as nice-guy editor Mark Gruenwald.

Howe seems to have interviewed just about everyone who was anyone at Marvel Comics with notable absences being the hermetic Ditko (who hasn't been photographed since the 1960s!) and the mercurial Shooter, who passed up the opportunity to counter the many, many stories about his inflexibility, his ego, and his penchant for pissing off everyone who worked under him. Howe's attention to detail and Marvel's own fascinating rags-to-riches growth from a fledgling division of a company that devoted most of its resources to publishing "men's sweat" magazines to a multi-billion-dollar enterprise mark MARVEL COMICS: THE UNTOLD STORY as a must-read for comic enthusiasts.


Thomas T. Sueyres said...

Damn, I may need that to show up under my Christmas tree this year. Nice write up.

Jeff Mclachlan said...

John B. Cooke, the editor of the late, lamented Comic Book Artist, has a new magazine starting up called Comic Book Creator. Just saw an ad for it in Back Issue (another fine mag, but a little lighter in content than CBA)