PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Books

The Staff Become Characters Themselves in 'Marvel Comics: The Untold Story'

Licensing deals became all important, with comics becoming vehicles for selling things like toys, towels, and shampoo.


Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

Publisher: Harper
Length: 496 pages
Author: Sean Howe
Price: $26.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-10
Amazon

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.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.