Marvel Comics - The Untold Story
by Sean Howe
Around about a year ago, I read and reviewed (right here) a book called Slugfest - Inside the Epic 50 Year Battle Between Marvel and DC by Reed Tucker. It was a pretty good read and I wanted to follow it up with another look at something about one of the comic book companies. Marvel Comics - The Untold Story by Sean Howe more than fits the bill. In fact, there’s not a lot of crossover at all between this and the earlier book I’d read. I mean, sure, there’s mention of DC but, when it comes to professional rivalry, Howe’s book looks as much at some of the more threatening independent labels like Image and Malibu as it does at DC.
So, as I started to read with a certain amount of trepidation, it soon became clear that I wasn’t just going to be reading a load of legendary and well told anecdotes about the long history of Marvel Comics. I mean, sure, they’re there but, at well over 400 pages, this book really gathers a lot of first hand research and the writer weaves it into a rich tapestry of many things I didn’t know about the comic book company (some of which I may have been happier not knowing, truth be told).
He does, however, start off with a revisitation of a famous point in Marvel Comics history, that of the day in 1961 when the lonesome Stan Lee, having been ordered to fire most of his staff and now working almost alone, decided to make one last grab at the market by publishing some superhero characters his own way while, at the behest of publisher Martin Goodman, coming up with something that could compete with the new Justice League Of America super group book that DC were cleaning up with. Thus, with Jack Kirby and also Steve Ditko on board, we had the birth of the Fantastic Four followed by The Amazing Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk and The Mighty Thor. At least that’s the way Lee tells it... the way Kirby remembered it was a lot different, as I’m sure long term fans of the comic world would know and, yeah, this book certainly addresses all that stuff later on too.
And it was at this point where I began to question things and say to myself... why the heck is this guy starting so late in the game? After all, Marvel started out as Timely (among others) with the 1939 issue which introduced characters such as The Human Torch (the original), Namor - The Sub Mariner and The Vision (the original) etc. Not to mention Jack Kirby and Joe Simon working on a Captain America comic during the war. And then I realised, like a typical Marvel Comic from a certain era of my youth, Howe was playing the game of starting off on a major action scene and then flashing back to the beginning of the adventure before catching back up with the tale and then moving forwards from there. So already I could tell he was really thinking about the way he structured this thing to resemble the subject matter he was exploring but, also, it turns out he’s a really great writer of this kind of stuff.
I mean, it’s one thing to do the research, organise all the facts into some kind of timeline and then diligently report them to the reader in as accurate and fair a manner as possible (I won’t say unbiased because, no piece of writing ever truly is but, you know, he probably comes close to that too). What the writer does here, though, is to go that one step further and takes you right into the details and action of the true life incidents like you’re reading a fictional tale come to life. Okay, it does get a bit more listy as the tome wears on when everything gets to be about deals and legality and office politics but, Howe impressed me with his knack of taking all those facts he’s had to crunch through and putting me right into the heart of the story with people like Bill Everett and the aforementioned Kirby.
And, because space and economics played against me for the last 30 years, he also goes into what is, for me, totally unknown territory and explores the changes and challenges of the company right through to around about ten years ago when this book was written. So, Stan Lee was still alive and, it would seem, available for comment (along with a whole host of creators and executives, many of whom have passed on now and it took this book to let me know about the deaths of the names behind the comics I used to see printed on pages regularly in the 1970s and 80s) and the Marvel Cinematic Universe had just started to get really successful with the first Avengers movie.
So, yeah, you’ll get stuff like that legendary, infamous weekend in the 1940s where all the artists and writers holed up together for a 48 hour period in a hotel room, working through the night and not sleeping (or sleeping in shifts) with the radio blaring as they quickly put together a 60 paged length Human Torch VS Sub Mariner tale which would rack up huge sales. But then, some 200 or more pages later, he’ll come up with an echo of that exact same behaviour in the 1990s or 2000s which was the equivalent, almost, of the same burst of creative energy from the early days in the 1940s.
He’ll highlight the things which made Lee and Kirby’s heroes different and appealing - the teenage angst, the insecurity, the fact that the Fantastic Four didn’t have secret identities - and he’ll also deal with the little things which would lead to injured parties having inflated negative feelings as the decades grew... such as Kirby assuming Lee got him fired from Timely at one point (while Kirby was moonlighting for DC as a kind of therapy for not being given proper profits shares for the amounts of money Captain America was raking in).
So yeah, there’s a lot of stuff which was new to me here and the writer takes you by the hand and leads you through Marvel history - Claremont’s X-Men, the arrival of John Byrne and Frank Miller, the split with Todd McFarlane, the issues with Steve Gerber - as well as all the politics and office wars along the way which resulted in many people walking away from the ‘house of ideas’ and into either a rival company or to start up a new one. And I have to say, it gets a lot darker than I thought it would.
Marvel and, even the likes of Stan Lee, are not painted in the best light here and you have to question a lot of the unbelievable stupidity on the part of the different management teams over the years who really, it seems to me, knew little about comics and were more concerned with the money than actually being true or even sensible to the characters in the Marvel stable. There are grudges aired, friends and colleagues betrayed by one another and even a few deaths, most likely from the stress of the situation that various managers made, that fill these pages and sometimes make the policies of the famed comic book company seem a little like a road accident. You know, those times when you pass a particularly bad one and curiosity compels you to look.
But you’ll also get insights into a lot of things such as the way in which Stan Lee wrote the stories... I still think writing using ‘the Marvel method’ is certainly still a topsy turvy way of doing things but it seems a lot less loose and random now that I think I understand the process a little better, for sure. I can also see how Stan’s ‘method’ could easily imbue everyone working on a title, including himself, with a sense of ownership which was much more of a team situation than various people might like to imagine.
So yeah, that’s me done dwelling on this stuff for a while, I think. Marvel Comics - The Untold Story is a dark but honest and, perhaps more importantly as far as the reader is concerned, hugely entertaining and fascinating insight into the behemoth that is the legendary comic book company. Not quite modern Marvel because, well, they weren’t owned by Disney then but, even then, there were some insights the author conveys about the idea of Disney looking into buying Marvel which, perhaps, he’d be less able to get away with now. But don’t take my word for that, read the book. It’s a great thing. My only real complaint, at least for the one I was gifted, is that there are pages of fascinating notes relating to each chapter in the back but, somehow, the numbers are left off the actual pages in the chapters so you’ve got no idea which note hooks up with which piece of text. Apart from this bizarre oversight though (I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen that particular mistake in a publication), it’s a stupendously interesting book and if you’re into comics and the state of the various environments behind them (art, writing, publishing, printing and, very importantly, distribution), then you will get a lot out of this one.