Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story - Sean Howe

I've mentioned before how I became a comics reader, and primarily a Marvel Comics reader, on Christmas Day 1963 when a couple of my cousins gave me a stack of comics they didn't want anymore. So I missed the birth of the so-called Marvel Age, but not by much. I got in very early on with many titles that are still going relatively strong nearly 50 years later.

So it comes as no surprise that I really enjoyed MARVEL COMICS: THE UNTOLD STORY by Sean Howe. It's a massive history of, you guessed it, Marvel Comics, going all the way back to the childhood of Martin Goodman, who would grow up to publish pulp magazines in the Thirties, comic books under the Timely imprint during the Forties, and finally in the Fifties would establish a company called Magazine Management, which published not only comics but also men's adventure magazines such as MALE and STAG. Those men's magazines were the backbone of the company, but Magazine Management continued to publish comics with various degrees of success until 1961 when Stanley Lieber, who scripted and edited the company's comic book line, and freelance artist Jack Kirby created a group of oddball superheroes called the Fantastic Four.

Despite this book's sub-title, a lot of the material it covers, especially in the first half, isn't really untold. For several decades comics fans, and quite a few comics creators, have argued about who deserves the credit for creating the FF, and thus Marvel Comics, Stan Lee or Jack Kirby. (For the record, I tend to believe it really was a collaborative effort.) The story makes for fascinating reading anyway, and there's quite a bit in it about the various writers and artists that I didn't know. The Sixites and Seventies are my favorite era for comics and the stories from that time are the ones I remember the best, so I found that part of this book to be fascinating, entertaining reading.

The second half, which covers the Eighties, Nineties, and on up to the current day, is heavily concerned with corporate matters, as Marvel is bought and sold on a regular basis after Martin Goodman retires. All the corporate shenanigans that go along with this time period in the company's history are as labyrinthine and convoluted as the X-Men continuity, but not as much fun. It's important, though, because as the business grew many of the creative decisions were driven by corporate interests, rather than simply trying to tell good stories. I've also said before that I disagreed with almost every creative decision Marvel made during the Nineties, to the point that I finally just walked away from comics completely for several years. What I didn't realize was just how many of those decisions were made by corporate bean-counters, rather than the writers and artists charged with actually producing the books. All the marketing stuff just becomes overwhelming after a while.

But there are still plenty of colorful personalities involved, and Sean Howe writes very well in clear, concise prose that kept me turning the pages. I started reading Marvel Comics again a few years ago and continue to enjoy them quite a bit, although there are a few things going on I don't care for (primarily the habit of renumbering the books every few years, and I've never been a fan of the big company-wide crossover "event" stories, either). Overall, I think MARVEL COMICS: THE UNTOLD STORY is an excellent book. If you're a comics fan, it gets a high recommendation from me. It'll probably be on my top ten list at the end of the year.


Fred Blosser said...

This is a very interesting book. James, I also enjoyed the "birth of" section for nostalgic value (I remember buying the first issues of FF, SPIDERMAN, HULK, etc, fresh off the newsstand and drugstore racks), but I found the narrative of Marvel post-1990s interesting too, if a tad confusing about who bought what, when. For me, at least, it's depressingly clear that the company now exists mostly as an appendage of a movie-marketing machine. I wonder what will happen when the fad of big-budget superhero movies inevitably fades.

RkR said...

I read and reviewed it late last year and like you enjoyed it, though I thought it flagged a bit near the end. I already knew much of the content, but it was fun to refresh my memory and add some new information.

Cap'n Bob said...

Is there ANY business that hasn't been ruined by bean counters? I was a big Marvel fan until crushing penury forced me to stop buying comics. When I was finally able to bey them again I didn't like what I saw.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Many thanks for writing about this book. I'm going to see if I can buy it here. I have a DC version of a somewhat similar book though not "untold" by any means. I got hooked to comics much the same way as you did, with a stack of 40 DC and Marvel comics gifted to me by an uncle in the early 1970s. I loved the WORLD'S FINEST COMICS back then.

Andrez Bergen said...

Yep, a fascinating read indeed. Cheers, James.