The greatest story Marvel Comics ever told was its own. More cosmic than the Silver Surfer, more angst-ridden than Spider-man, and more convoluted than the X-Men, this whopper played out in Stan Lee’s Soapbox articles, house ads, letter columns, and all across the shifting media landscape for 50 years. Portraying a kind of chummy creative utopia, the staff of the famed Bullpen became characters themselves, their work a manifestation of their personalities. In the case of Stan Lee, the figurehead of the company and co-creator of many of its biggest stars, his personality actually became his work, creating a cottage industry of catch phrases and corporate boosterism as he personally “presented” every Marvel comic on the shelves.
Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story rivals Marvels greatest tales both in the scope of its story and its colorful cast of characters. Marvel didn’t become Marvel until the ‘60s. The company which became Marvel was founded in the ‘30s by Martin Goodman, a canny pulp publisher who saw the success of Superman and wanted in on the action. In 1939, Marvel Comics #1 arrived featuring two characters later used by Marvel, the Human Torch and the Submariner, and by 1941 Captain America. With the Captain came his co-creator, Jack Kirby, and soon Goodman’s cousin-in-law Stanley Leiber would also arrive. Leiber would eventually chop his first name in half and become Stan Lee. Howe gives us a quick tour of these early days, establishing the creators who would come to dominate the company, as well as the market trends which would later be scientifically calculated into the company’s creative strategies.
By the ‘50s the proto-Marvel, like most comics companies, was suffering due to public outcry over the graphic content of the horror and crime comics being produced. With the ‘60s came renewed vigor in the form of Fantastic Four, Lee and Kirby’s squabbling oddball superhero team. It was an immediate hit. From there, Lee, Kirby, artist Steve Ditko, and others, collaborated on characters which remain embedded in popular culture: the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, the X-Men, and Spider-man.
Howe treats these mythical early days as extraordinary in terms of their impact, but ordinary in their passing. These creators knew their work was popular, but who knew if it would last? Just ten years before, many of them were drawing repetitive monster stories or keeping their mouths shut when they were asked what they did for a living. Creating an issue of Fantastic Four or Amazing Spider-man was just another paycheck to artists like Kirby and Ditko, even to Stan Lee. After all, these creators had no stake in the characters they’d helped create.
Getting past this point in the company’s history is a major hump for Howe’s book. It can’t be ignored, of course, but it’s also been done to death. Comic book fans are obsessed with origin stories, and this period of comic book history is a creative explosion of biblical proportions. Like the Bible, there are plenty of questions regarding authorship, and Howe wisely avoids going too deep into the mire of “who created what” in the Lee/Kirby and Lee/Ditko partnerships. That argument has evolved over the years in various interviews, books, and online comments sections. Many of the participants are now dead, their heirs left to battle giant corporations for the copyrights to characters their parents created. This is all easy controversy which could easily sink the narrative. Thankfully it doesn’t.
Instead, Howe focuses on what came after Marvel’s big bang, the strange symbiosis of veteran artists like Gil Kane and John Romita clashing with subversive young writers like Steve Gerber and Steve Englehart. The Marvel of the ‘70s sounds closest to the Bullpen of legend, with newcomers like Denny O’Neil being prodded to spike Stan Lee’s coffee with LSD. (O’Neil decided against it.)
Lee left the editorial reins in the hands of Roy Thomas, a fan-turned professional who, left to his own devices, took a hands-off approach to Marvel’s line of comics. Howe writes that Thomas’s approach “ushered in Marvel’s most unpredictable—and often downright subversive—era.” Work from Gerber, Englehart, and Jim Starlin explored consciousness on a cosmic scale, as well as political and social issues, all of it fueled by an antiestablishment mentality and a dose of quality psychedelics.
Marvel endured head-spinning corporate shuffling again and again throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, and even once belonged to Revlon chairman Ronald Perelman. Despite the changing hands, one thing remained consistent: the corporate masters had little use for comics. Licensing deals became all important, with comics becoming vehicles for selling things like toys, towels, and shampoo. Even the pinnacle of controversial editor-in-chief Jim Shooter’s rein, the 12-issue miniseries Secret Wars was named as a result of market research showing fans’ excitement over those two words. Stan Lee lead a personal crusade to get Marvel’s characters onto the big screen, and movie deals were constantly struck, only to end up in development hell. The only thing missing was the desire to sell more comics.
The rise and eventual exodus of superstar artists Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, and Jim Lee brought new fans—and their money—to the industry. Those three, along with Erik Larsen and Jim Valentino, would eventually leave the company to found Image Comics, a major disturbance in the longtime Marvel/DC stranglehold on the industry, not to mention a major chunk out of each company’s profits. With all the back stabbing, insinuations, and inflated egos, Howe’s account of this major turning point in comics history is so compelling it could be a book of its own.
Howe’s history of Marvel is the story of one big decline. He details the company’s descent into bankruptcy in the boom and bust years of the ‘90s, as well relentless pursuit of big time Hollywood dollars. The comics suffered: this could be the book’s leit motif, a sad lament capping off each era of the company’s history. Martin Goodman forces Stan Lee to lay off most of the staff in 1957: and the comics suffered. Jack Kirby departs after growing dissatisfaction over his treatment by the company: and the comics suffered. Jim Shooter exerts as much power as possible as editor-in-chief: and the comics suffered. Hollywood special effects caught up with the imaginations of writers and pencilers: and the comics suffered.
Stan Lee’s presence as great in the book as it is in Marvel’s history. He’s not always the center of the story, but he’s never far from the page. He’s in Hollywood wheeling and dealing, or relaying exciting news about upcoming publications, or posing naked with a Hulk comic to cover his genitals. He is equally loved and reviled by fans and creators alike, a godlike creator of beloved characters or an attention seeking hack who took the credit for anything and everything. Howe balances these two personas wonderfully. Even after decades of success, Howe show us Lee’s continued disappointment in the novels, poems, and screenplays he didn’t write. Lee’s own self-mythologizing obscures a sadness about his role at Marvel. His public persona betrays little of this, especially as he engages with generations far-removed from his glory days.
There’s no section of photographs in the book, no samples of classic covers or pages, no pictures of editorial meetings or stills from mega-hit movies. (Howe maintains an excellent collection of photos and art at seanhowe.tumblr.com.) There are only two photos in the book, both in black and white. The first is a house ad announcing Marvel Comics #1 at the beginning of the book. The second, on the last page, is a 1965 portrait of Smilin’ Stan Lee and Jack “King” Kirby. They’re men in their 40s, and they create comic books for a living. It’s a sweet moment between two collaborators who could not always call one another a friend, and even after almost 500 pages of Howe’s compelling account of the careers of these men and others like them, it makes one believe the Marvel story all over again.