Saturday, November 10, 2012

Review: MARVEL COMICS: The Untold Story

HARPERCOLLINS – @HarperCollins

AUTHOR: Sean Howe
ISBN: 978-0-06-199210-0; hardcover
496pp, $25.99 U.S.

Sean Howe has been an editor at Entertainment Weekly and for The Criterion Collection, and he edited the Deep Focus series of books about films. Howe’s recent book is Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, and it is a freaking great book.

HarperCollins describes Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, as “An unvarnished, unauthorized, behind-the-scenes account of one of the most dominant pop cultural forces in contemporary America.” “Unvarnished” is just the right word to describe this book. Also, it takes a “behind-the-scenes account” to reveal the outsized personalities that took Marvel Comics from nothing to a whole lotta something.

Howe’s nonfiction book takes readers back to the early years of the life of Martin Goodman, the hardscrabble magazine publisher of pulps whose luck rarely ran out (which includes just avoiding the Hindenburg’s ill-fated final voyage). One man’s economic misfortune meant Goodman was handed the material that would become the seminal comic book, Marvel Comics #1. Essentially, its publication is the dawn of Timely, the company that would eventually become Marvel Comics.

Most of this book, however, focuses on the Goodman publishing division that took the name, Marvel Comics, Howe chronicles Marvel Comics’ beginnings as a struggling company operating out of a tiny office on Madison Avenue in the early 1960s. The company began publishing comic books featuring a roster of brightly costumed characters: Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, the Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, and Daredevil. Distinguished by smart banter and compellingly human flaws, these characters not only won over children, but also captured the imaginations of college students, pop artists, public intellectuals, and even some assorted radicals, beatniks, and peaceniks.

From that point in time, Howe takes the reader on a journey over the course of a half-century, as Marvel becomes a multibillion-dollar enterprise. Howe chronicles how Marvel survives both Hollywood’s and Wall Street’s machinations, as well as clueless, greedy owners. There are struggles over credit (who created what) and control (who gets what, if any, and how much). There are battles between editors and management, editors and creators, creators and management, and even creators vs. creators.

There are so many storylines. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby becomes Kirby versus Lee. Spider-Man mastermind Steve Ditko’s goes Randian and then, goes away. See Jim Shooter’s ego trip, and then, see him lose his damn mind! Learn about “the next generation,” those renegade creators Stever Gerber, Steve Englehart, Don McGregor, and Jim Starlin. Follow the birth of the Direct Market. See the Image Comics guys before they were Image, and then, get another side to the story of their exodus.

Sean Howe has packed Marvel Comics: The Untold Story with so much history and story that I’d need more page space to describe it than you, dear reader, are willing to read. According to the publisher, Howe conducted over a hundred original interviews of Marvel insiders for this book, and I guess those interview subjects had a lot to say. With the additional information and reference material he obtained from other books and interviews, Howe has created a behind-the-scenes look at the history of Marvel Comics.

I think the best of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is Part 1: Creations and Myths. This opening section opens with Martin Goodman and ends with Jack Kirby’s departure from Marvel Comics in March 1970. Despite the ups-and-downs of the company and the conflicts and feuds among people at the company – from the top down – the first three decades of Timely/Marvel is a time of discovery and wonder. It is a new frontier, and it doesn’t matter if Howe’s telling is “unvarnished.” Those first three decades are varnished enough that they outshine even the media behemoth that Marvel Comics has become, as well as the decades of squabbling.

It’s like reading about the space race, as if this book were written in the space age, capturing a new frontier. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a great book not because of the story it tells, but because how it tells that story.


Reviewed by Leroy Douresseaux

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