Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe

marvelcomicsIf you’re looking for a glossy, full-colour account of Marvel Comics, featuring classic artwork and covers from the company’s long history, this book is not for you. Rather, Sean Howe sets out to give an insider’s view of the editorial and management world that lay behind the creation of such icons as Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man and the Hulk. It gives a blow-by-blow account of the creators’ battles that could put the slugfests on the spinner racks at the local 7-Eleven to shame.

Howe has clearly done his research and there are plenty of juicy facts for the long-time comic fan to chew over, for example:

  • the fabled Marvel Bullpen of happy editors, writers and artists never existed. Most people were freelancers who worked from home. In fact, by the end of their fractured relationship, The Amazing Spider-Man writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko weren’t even talking to each other whilst still producing the comic book.
  • Stan Lee himself was once a teenage office boy who was bossed around by the older Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
  • although he worked hard to extend creators’ rights and to pay royalties to staff, Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter was rewarded by those self-same freelancers by being burnt in effigy, after a series of unpopular commands from on high
  • when the rock band Kiss had a comic produced featuring themselves as superheroes, they mixed their own blood into the ink for the printing, although it accidentally ended up in ink destined for the pages of Sports Illustrated.

This is very much a book for adult fans, which is not surprising since Howe himself notes that the average comic reader today is aged around thirty, and many comic books retail at $2.99.

Much of the book centres on the so-called Silver Age and Bronze Age when most of Howe’s target readers would have been growing up. For my liking, there was rather too much coverage on the early seventies and characters like Howard the Duck, a relatively peripheral figure in Marvel’s continuity. Nevertheless, the battles over rights to the character between creator Steve Gerber and the owners of Marvel is a key element in the slow movement towards full creator rights.

Generally, Howe does an excellent job of keeping track of what comics were in production at any one time. That’s no easy feat when you consider Marvel’s huge output and frequent launches and cancellations of titles. One small slip occurs when Howe describes the moment when editor Ann Nocenti removes old hand Sal Buscema from the pencils on The New Mutants, on the grounds that his artwork had become old-fashioned. Buscema responded by pulling out all the stops to produce blistering artwork on the next issue of his other title, The Incredible Hulk. Unfortunately, Howe doesn’t tell us what issue of the Hulk this was.

As the story of Marvel reaches its latter stages, the chapters become more and more complicated as legal battles and boardroom struggles dominate events. This does drift into the field of business history, which may put off some readers.

Thankfully, the 1990s does see the rise of the superstar writer-artists who leave Marvel, determined to have complete creative control over their work. Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld and above all Spawn creator Todd McFarlane achieved levels of artistic freedom that was nothing short of a dream for the true king of comics, Jack Kirby, who struggled for many years against the attribution of his creations as work for hire.

At times, a little more context of the wider world of comics is needed. When McFarlane and his contemporaries decide to strike out on their own into the world of independent comics, it feels like a great leap in the dark. In fact, there were already precedents in place of hyper-successful independent comics. For instance, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had already been translated into a successful TV show by 1987.

Howe’s history of Marvel is an intriguing read for those interested in creator rights, the history of publishing, and the nuts and bolts aspects of comic production. At times, the book was impossible to put down, especially when Howe explores the declining relationship between Lee and Kirby in their latter years. One memorable sequence features the transcript of a conversation they had on live radio on the occasion of Kirby’s seventieth birthday. Lee phoned into the program without prior warning, and the two debated the creation of their legendary characters live on air. It’s gripping stuff.

Surely the ground is now set for a companion volume on Marvels’ great rivals, DC Comics. Excelsior!


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