“I can’t call it the Marvel Age of Comics because I don’t believe in rewarding thievery. I call it the Jack Kirby Age of Comics.” –Frank Miller
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story
by Sean Howe
review by BK Munn
What was the name of Jack Kirby’s childhood street gang? Why did Stan Lee shave his beard? What did Chris Claremont call “the quest for the cosmic orgasm”? Why did corporate raider Ike Perlmutter fax pages from the Old Testament to Carl Icahn? These facts and thousands more make up the exhaustingly engrossing content of Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, an unauthorized history of the pop culture kingpin recently published by Harper Collins.
Historical anecdotes about Marvel are like mother’s milk to me. As a child comic book reader in the 1970s and 1980s, I devoured Marvel Comics products and strove to learn everything about the company’s characters and creators I could. This early fannishness translated into a lifelong fascination with comics in general and, more specifically, an appreciation for the formative Marvel creators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko as two of the most important and original figures in comic art, period. As a youngster, before my discovery of comics fandom and fan histories of comics, my historical education benefited from the easy availability of the cheap reprints of classic 1950s and 60s stories Marvel flooded the market with in the 70s (Marvel’s Greatest Comics, Marvel Tales, and the horror and sci-fi stories reprinted in such titles as Where Monsters Dwell), as well as from the series of self-aggrandizing histories Stan Lee penned for Simon and Shuster beginning with The Origins of Marvel Comics. As a burgeoning Marvel zombie, I was entirely under the spell of Stan and his huckster tales of The House of Ideas and the hijinks of the jolly Marvel Bullpen, a legendary Valhalla of comic art geniuses nontheless subordinate to the genial genius-in-chief Stan the Man, the All-Father Odin of all that was good about my favourite fictional universe.
Cut to 2012 and a world in which the Marvel Universe is a planet-wide phenomenon that sits astride the world of movies and merchandising like It, The Living Colossus, and Stan Lee is a cult folk hero and minor celebrity known as the chief Marvel spokesperson, with a resume of campy cameos in a handful of Hollywood blockbusters (sorry, it’s hard not to drift into alliteration when writing about Stan). While long-time former fans like myself have a lifetime of reading about the dark side of Marvel under our belts, including the bitter memories of the battles for control and compensation of the creations of Kirby, Ditko, Steve Gerber, and Gary Friedrich, among many others, I suspect most people probably think of Marvel, if they think of it at all, as a glamorous multimedia success story in which Stan Lee is a sort of benevolent Walt Disney figure and the various studio executives, producers, directors, and stars form a modern Marvel Bullpen of creative and financial geniuses. Sean Howe’s Untold Story is a welcome corrective to this narrative, a well-researched, breathlessly-paced history of the company, its owners and employees, and their creations, a history stretching like a time-traveling Reed Richards from Marvel’s genesis in the down-and-dirty world of 1930s pulp magazines to its current place as a 21st-Century entertainment giant and Disney cash cow.
Howe does a good journalistic job synthesizing a history of Marvel from available sources, including previous fan histories and interviews, combined with 150 new interviews and a close reading of key Marvel comics and editorial content in the context of their historical creation (World War II, the 1960s Civil Rights movement, and the 1960s and 70s counterculture). What emerges is a more-or-less unbiased account of the creation of characters like Spider-Man and The X-Men, and the transformation of what was once known as Timely Comics from a small operation run by a few hardworking men in an office of Martin Goodman’s Magazine Management mini-empire to its current incarnation, along the way humanizing all involved and giving faces to the men and women behind the newsprint fantasies. Beginning with the bestselling success of early superheroes like Carl Burgos’ Human Torch, Bill Everett’s Submariner, and Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America in the early 1940s, Howe traces the quick growth of Marvel from a publisher of pre-packaged sweatshop-produced action comics to an idea factory overseen by writer-editor Simon and one-man art-machine Kirby.
Howe breathes some new life and insights into the often-told tale of Stan Lee’s ascendancy from annoying teenage office boy, hired because he was a cousin of the publisher, to the head-writer and editor-in-chief who oversees the slow decline of the company through the late-40s and the censorship crisis of the 1950s through to its revitalization at the hands of Kirby and Ditko in the early 1960s. The golden thread Howe follows in this narrative is the growing fissures in the corporate ediface and the creative differences between Goodman, Lee, and the other writers and artists that would eventually lead to a destructive dual culture of management and labour (or fleecers and the fleeced, as the case may be). Howe writes of the creation of “Lee’s most important non-super-powered characters: the merry members of the mythical Marvel Bullpen,” a metaphorical construct that spun gold from the base metal of the dysfunctional atomized group of bitter middle-aged freelancers and the handful of production staff and office workers who occasionally shared Stan’s tiny cubicle. Having first described the creation of the Bullpen mystique, Howe next spends over 300 pages on the bizarre evolution of the concept and the comings and goings of subsequent generations of creators leading up to the transformation of the company’s culture into a more corporate environment through the 1980s.
One of the highlights of the book is Howe’s detailed treatment of the rise of the first generation of post Lee-Kirby-Ditko fans-turned-creators beginning with the hire of 20-something schoolteacher and fanzine publisher Roy Thomas in the late-60s and continuing through the motley crew of 70s stalwarts like Steve Gerber and Jim Starlin. While even the most casual reader of Marvel’s 70s output must have wondered about the level of drug use and the nature of the spiritual-philosophical-political beliefs of Captain America writer Steve Englehart or Black Panther scripter Don McGregor, until now a coherent profile of this group has been largely elusive, limited to the scattered odd fanzine interview or blog post. Howe provides an almost month-by-month, comic-by-comic history of the takeover of Marvel by the younger generation, breezily incorporating capsule biographies and juicy, hilarious anecdotes about Al Milgrom and Alan Weiss stumbling through “Death Wish-era Manhattan” on LSD, dreaming up plots and settings for Master of Kung Fu. The reinvention of Kirby and Lee’s Cold War parable X-Men as an A-list sci-fi soap opera helmed by Chris Claremont and the promotion of Jim Shooter to editor-in-chief are told with microscopic, entertaining detail, as are the behind-the-scenes backroom corporate deals, battles, hirings, firings, betrayals, and nervous breakdowns that finally brought Marvel into the world of 1980s schlock movie production and set the stage for the 1990s corporate raider takeover and strip-mining of the company, bankruptcy, and the defection of the Image Comics artists.
The book’s real value lies in its accounts of the past three decades of business and editorial boom and bust cycles at Marvel; how bad decisions, big egos, and mistreatment of creative artists led to personal tragedy and the near-death of the company and of the North American comic book industry as a whole, and Marvel’s inexplicable success despite a spectacular lack of artistic creativity or vision. As Howe makes abundantly clear, the fact remains that unlike even new owner Disney, Marvel has not produced a new character or story with mass appeal since about 1978 and remains essentially an empty shell devoted to maintaining and promoting a handful of lucrative properties first imagined by Kirby, Ditko, and a few others. Under the harsh glare of Howe’s prose, modern Marvel’s success is exposed as the combination of inertia, historical accident and the determined efforts of a few canny operators to leverage any stray scrap of intellectual property they could lay their hands on into Hollywood currency.
While much of the material collated here has been previously covered in the pages of The Comic Journal and in books like Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon’s Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book and Ronin Ro’s Tales to Astonish, and corporate-sanctioned tomes like Les Daniel’s Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades, Howe’s approach, that of a business writer with a human concern for the interior life of his subjects, coupled with a newspaperman’s love of local colour and gossip, elevates the stories of the people behind Marvel into something resembling real history; both tragedy and farce combined. The only thing lacking is visual documentation –being an unauthorized, warts-and-all history, permission to reproduce comic art or related images was understandably hard to secure– but Howe has set up a wonderful tumblr blog to showcase all the weird ephemera and art he unearthed in his research. Old fans like myself might wistfully resent the occasional lacunae (the 1940s “Golden Age” heyday of the company and oddball artists like Harvey Kurtzman and Basil Wolverton barely figure in the book) and proofreading gaffes (I’m pretty sure Marvel never published something called “Millie and the Models”), but the book is probably the best and most balanced history we are likely to get of “The House That Jack Built” for quite a long time.