All the vast measurements of time humans have conceived become ineffective when recorded in our history books. Concrete increments like seconds and hours freeze in pools of ink and stick in the pulp of the printed page, their meanings abstracted and collapsed each time they’re read or reread. History is repeated between the covers of a book, always beginning and ending at the same points in an infinite loop.
In the Marvel Chronicle, the 70-year history of Marvel Comics unfolds year-by-year, from Timely Comics’ introduction of the original Human Torch in Marvel Comics #1 through the company’s massive Civil War crossover. To see this history spread out on the page is to see the loop of time take shape. The pattern goes like this: find whatever sells and push it until people want something else, then repeat. Along the way, real world events are introduced into the characters’ immutable lives to give readers the impression our heroes have passed through time with the rest of us. In reality—ours and theirs—Marvel’s characters remain in whatever month of whatever year they were printed, and we readers are just visitors to those frozen moments.
So, is this book worth the trip? Sure, but hardcore history it’s not, though that’s not really the point. It’s not a blow-by-blow, “inside baseball” account of creator infighting or financial woes, but rather a fun and fact-filled trip through Marvel’s seven decades, complete with profiles of major characters and creators. The elaborate packaging and wallpapered art featuring Marvel most popular characters screams FUN, and the inside delivers on that promise.
More than anything, fun is what Marvel has always been about. There’s the blood and gore of Wolverine and the Punisher, but Marvel’s history features no Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, two universally lauded stories which upended the idea of the superhero and caused creative ripples throughout the comics industry. With perhaps the exception of Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil in the 1980s, though, there are no bleak adult visions darkening the halls of the House of Ideas.
There’s minimal focus on off-the-page tie-ins like toys, trading cards and films. That last one proved the hardest egg to crack, with a number of properties languishing in the development stage for years, but when it did we all had it on our faces.
The real reason anyone would want to pick up this book isn’t to find out when Millie the Model first appeared or how much Spider-man grossed in 2002: it’s the art. There are covers, panels, sketches and promotional art dating back to 1939, some well-preserved and some not. That any art from comics’ past exists at all is a minor miracle. Many comics publishers threw original art out with the trash, but someone at the company that would become Marvel clearly had an eye for posterity.
Though sometimes blurry or faded, much of the artwork reproduced here is beautiful, silly and exciting, a testament to the lasting power of the art form. Each large, double-page spreads invites a closer viewing, but then something horrible becomes apparent: all the lettering appears to have been digitally replaced. Comics have been digitally lettered for years, but they definitely weren’t in the 1940s, and the first words Spider-man ever spoke were lettered by hand.
This may seem like a minor quibble, like a fanboy nitpicking over continuity inconsistencies, but hear me out. Comics—especially mainstream superhero comics—are collaborations between the writer, artist, letterer, colorist and editor, and each brings something to the page. The editor guides the overall book; the artist brings the characters to life; the writer supplies the dialogue; the letterer provides the soundtrack. To change the soundtrack is the alter the mood of the piece.
Going through the book, it’s apparent this practice has been applied to every era in the book—even, apparently, the newest comics. The result is jarring and annoying. Stiff, robotic letters lifted from Microsoft Word clash with the bold lines of Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four work, each block of text slapped over the original haphazardly, creating awkward negative space in what was once a painstakingly filled word balloon.
There were likely issues of clarity that arose when transferring artwork from the original to the book’s layout, but replacing man-made imperfection with computer precision doesn’t help us understand the past any better, and it certainly doesn’t help us enjoy it. This tinkering and tweaking with the past is a form of grave robbery, literally taking credit from the hands of unsung craftsmen like Sam Rosen, Art Simek and John Duffy, just to name a few.
Then again, given the loop of history, this practice makes sense. When it comes to superhero comics, companies have a history of ignoring creators’ rights, and though great progress has been made in the last 20 or 30 years, it seems now companies are willing to overlook the actual creations themselves. Unless, of course, there are fruit pies to sell, movies to be made or expensive coffee table books to produce. Then, it’s time for a celebration.