Saturday, March 2, 2013

75 Years of Triumph and Tragedy: Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story
By Sean Howe
Harper, 2012
To say that Sean Howe's comprehensive history, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, is "untold," is a bit disingenuous. There is nothing radically new or earth-shattering revealed here, most of the facts presented are well-known to those familiar with Marvel's long and complex history. Most of the story presented in Howe's history can be found in any number of articles, books, and interviews in magazines and newspapers published over the last three decades or so. But no-one before has collated all that history into one consise volume like Howe has here, and for that this book is an indispensable resource to historians and casual fans alike.

Covering Marvel's entire history, Howe skillfully weaves previously published interviews and articles with years of interviews & research conducted on his own. Marvel's history is unique and comparatively unsteady, dominated by mercurial personalities and notoriously cheap ownership. Marvel's comics in the 1930s and 1960s were completely unlike any other contemporary publications, and the people behind those eras were just as different. Martin Goodman, the magazine publisher who founded what would eventually become Marvel Comics, more or less fell into the comic publishing business. Using odd comic adventure stories prepackaged by the production company Funnies, Inc., Marvel's earliest stories featured flawed, even tragic heroes like the Frankenstein-monster The Human Torch and the murderous anti-hero (one of fictions earliest), Namor, The Sub-Mariner. These heroes, so different than the cookie cutter Superman and pulp knockoffs flooding the market soon included Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's costumed Nazi-smasher Captain America. In a recurring motif, Marvel soon came to loggerheads with Kirby (and Simon) and they bolted for the competition. This would be just the earliest in a long history of mistreatment of talent and Kirby especially, a history that leaves a black mark on Marvel's legacy to this day.

Breezing through the golden age and the rise of Martin's young nephew Stan Lee to the Editor's chair, Goodman's cheapness and fly-by-night series of corporate shell-gamesmanship left little leeway to creatively or financially advance the company beyond pale imitations of others' comics. Howe neither overlooks any facet of the company's history through his time, nor does he get bogged down in unnecessary detail. Soon enough we reach the Silver Age of comics that Marvel would usher in, the House That Jack Built. The Marvel Comics of the 1960s that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and crew would produce completely changed the medium and the artform. Using the shared universe started by Marvel in comics' earliest crossovers in the early 1940s, Kirby's energetic illustrations and Lee's enthusiastic storytelling ushered in an age of human, flawed heroes diametrically opposed to the clean-cut flawless heroes of the Distinguished Competition. Much is made of the well-trodden history of the Marvel Style of comic creation and the disputes that would arise between Lee and his artistic collaborators over story direction and credit. Again, no new ground is broken over the well-known decades-long dispute between Kirby and Lee & Marvel that would arise at the end of the 1960s. Unlike Gerard Jones' deservedly passionate expose of comics' original sin in Men of Tomorrow,  Howe is fairly even-handed in portraying all sides of the story and the flaws inherent in all the memories and claims by all the parties involved. Needless to say, this would not be the first dispute over the creation of Marvel's heroes.

Lee, the inveterate self-promoter and company man would eventually head to Hollywood and a series of editors would take the reins throughout the 1970s. Personally, I was less familiar with the Marvel of the 1970s, and Howe does a great job at telling the story of the iconoclastic men and women of the era who produced some weird, drugged out material. Much is made of Steve Gerber and his contributions and fights with the company, and Marvel's unconscionable treatment of Kirby through his death in the 1990s. Lee's own contributions, creatively and corporately, are again handled with fairness to all sides. Breezing through the decades we get to Jim Shooter's rein in the 1980s and the tidal waves of good and bad that would come from that.

Not just focusing on the creative end of things, Howe also clearly paints a complex and winding picture of the corporate mismanagement that plagued the company through it's purchase by Disney at the end of the 2000s. Much is deservedly made of Marvel's contributions to the speculator boom and burst of the 1990s and the company's bankruptcy that nearly took down the whole industry with it. We get detailed pictures of the personalities that worked behind the scenes and the creators who Marvel repeatedly let slip through its fingers, from the Frank Millers of the 1980s through the Image defection of the 1990s.

One of Marvel's most important eras, one that began in 2000 with the rise of Joe Quesada that would cement Marvel as the top company in comics in terms of dollars and creatively, is the least detailed section of the book. The Isaac Perlmutter regime, the purchase by Disney, the success of the films, and the creators behind Marvel's modern Renaissance are touched on, but given relatively short-shrift. It seems that his history stops at the current regime, maybe because those in the company did not want to comment on their employers, or maybe because the past decade or so needs some more space before it can be effectively reported on. That is one small quibble in an otherwise entertaining, comprehensive history of one of the major cultural forces of the 20th century. Howe's tome is a must-read and easily earns its place with the other great comic book histories, Gerard Jones' masterpiece Men of Tomorrow and David Hadju's Ten Cent Plague.

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