What a fantastic read! This history of the Marvel Comics is a page turner that artfully balances the history of the Marvel Enterprise with the history and development of the characters that make up the Marvel Universe.
With full disclosure, I’ll admit that like most teenage boys from my generation I had my period of comic nerd-hood, as I gobbled up the popular X-Men, Ghost Rider, and Punisher titles of the late 80’s and early 90’s and later moved from the “mainstream” into many of the offbeat titles from the new publishers like Valiant, Image, and DC’s Dark Horse. During this time a lot of the great artist’s and writers jumped ship from Marvel to the smaller publishers as the industry began to degrade from great storytelling to an endless litany of gimmicks such as hologram covers, multiple cover designs, and bag sealed books designed to capitalize on the collector market. The endless barrage of blatant cash-hungry gimmicks eventually caused me to lose interest in the genre because the story telling declined as the cover prices kept going up and up.
This great book about the history of Marvel Comics by Sean Howe not only provides the backdrop to the decline of Marvel in the mid 90′s that I lived through, it craftily portrays a rich history of the company’s workings from the early decades through present day. From its early days under its original name of Timely Comics (one of the many subdivisions of Martin Goodman’s growing publishing empire), through its present state as a subdivision of Disney, Marvel has constantly gone through cycles of expansion and retraction, gravitating great artists only to push them away. Following the depression and up until the early 1960′s Marvel struggled, often hiring and firing, only to rehire the same artists and writers over again in order to save costs. It seems that the only guy that didn’t get the shaft over and over was the young publisher, Stan Lee, who was Goodman’s wife’s cousin. Lee’s name is synonymous with the Marvel universe and it is amazing to think that at 89 years old that he has consistently been the face of Marvel for nearly 70 years. However, now knowing some of the darker sides of the Marvel story it was an eye opener to learn that Lee secured his early place in the Marvel empire through the benefit of a family connection and he too may have been fired if he wasn’t related to the publisher’s owner’s wife. Through the many periods of hiring and firing, Lee managed to remain the center of it all, touching every book and writing from his soapbox he presented the Marvel bullpen as a center of happy-go-lucky creative enterprise. However, the truth was that many of the artists worked independently in the basements of their homes, sending in their artwork and barely speaking with Lee.
What made Marvel unique from its long-time competitor, Detective Comics (DC), was the Marvel method of writing. Artists would work with the publisher (Lee for most of the early years) to first draft out the idea for the story, however they would generally write the story on their own through the storyboards of their artwork while Lee would later add in the dialogue after the pages were drawn and inked. Essentially, the artists were writers but did not receive a writer’s credit. If that sounds connivingly corporate, what is more despicable is that all of the characters that were created by the artists and writers were not the artist’s property and they didn’t even get credit or royalties for creating them! Many of the characters that were the foundation of the Marvel Universe like Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, and Spiderman, were creations of artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko in collaboration with Stan Lee. Lee has been widely been credited with developing these characters because he was the editor in chief but the artists like Ditko and Kirby were never granted the right to sell their original artwork while Lee was eventually granted a lifetime annual salary of nearly half a million a year for continuing on as the face of Marvel. Through some tricky legal maneuvers, Marvel would print mini-contracts on the back of the checks granted Marvel full ownership of the work employed by the artists.
What makes this book a great read is the way that Sean Howe is able to make legal matters interesting by providing a human element to the corporate empire that is Marvel. There were many ups and downs and new generations would be drawn to work for Marvel only to face the same frustrations that the founding members would grumble about. Granted, there were periods of great creativity and even periods of comradery (during the 70′s the psychedelic drugs were free flowing in the Marvel offices and the story lines and artwork were greatly influenced by mind altering expansions and fraternity-like shenanigans), yet there were also periods of great strife such as the mid 80′s when the editor in chief Jim Shooter was so overbearingly controlling about the storyline in every book that there was eventually a mob confrontation in his office that eventually got him fired.
Alongside these periods of very human interaction, Sean Howe provides the backstory and development of the Marvel characters and reader/fan reaction to the storylines, explaining how the Marvel universe is a single universe where actions in one book can affect the outcome in another book. Howe doesn’t limit the character backstory to the big guns like Spiderman or Hulk, he gives equal focus to seemingly minor characters like MoonKnight, Dazzler, and others, explaining how these characters were the brainchildren of the creative artists that were drawn to the Marvel universe only to lose the rights to their creative offspring to the company’s grip on copyright ownership. Furthermore, it was interesting to learn that as Marvel began to expand into film and TV in the early 70′s that the creation of many sidekick and minor characters like She-Hulk were created for the sole purpose of guaranteeing the rights of ownership of a character that a TV or film studio would potentially create in its storyline. She-Hulk was created not out of necessity of the story arc, but out of necessity to ensure that Marvel would own any potential use of the character for future films, toys, etc.
The only drawback to this smashing book was the lack of art contained within. The book is all text, and although it does read surprisingly quickly and is well written, I found myself often referring to the web to look up a particular artist or a character to provide some reference to the artwork mentioned within the text of the book. Other than this minor flaw, it is a great read worthy of any one interested in pop-lit history.