I’ve never particularly been a fan of Marvel Comics, though I did dip my toe into the Marvel Universe for a period of time roughly equal to the classic Claremont/Byrne partnership on X-Men (started following it about six months after they started, dropped out about six months after they broke up). In fact, technically I’ve been operating a personal boycott against the company’s comics for almost thirty years, since the dispute over Jack Kirby’s original art, though it’s difficult to determine the point at which my attitude passed from boycott to indifference.
Some of this indifference is historical. I first started noticing American comics at roughly the same time that the Marvel Era began with Fantastic Four 1, and I grew up in East Manchester where very few Marvel Comics were ever distributed, even after the company began to gain some sales momentum. By then, I was comfortably immured in the characters and manners of DC Comics: such occasional Marvel Comics as came my way were confusing, with stories continuing from an issue you hadn’t got to an issue you’d never get via the one you were trying to understand about someone you didn’t know in the middle of something you couldn’t work out.
There was also a substantial difference in tone and manner: Marvel then, and ever since, has always stood for dynamism, action, melodrama, action, tragedy, action. Lots of people loved that, and flocked to Marvel for more, more, more. For a great many people it’s the essence of what superhero comics should be: quick, violent,excessive, gaudy. I understand that and agree with it, but when reading Marvel I too often read it as hysteria, the deliberate inflation of everything beyond the reality of what it actually meant.
Nevertheless, as soon as I heard of Sean Howe’s book Marvel Comics – the Untold Story, I was eager to read it. For one thing, despite my lack of knowledge of the company’s titles for approximately thirty years, large swathes of the book would cover periods that I had lived through, that I already had views upon from being an active part of comics fandom at various times. And because, in comics as it is not in books, there are always two stories to every story, and the one behind the scenes, revolving around the business that produces it and the men (and women) involved in its creation is, to me at least, equally fascinating.
And Howe has combined what is clearly a detailed knowledge of Marvel, its characters, comics and principal personalities, with hundreds of interviews with people there at the time, who can attest to the fact – as this book explores – that the Marvel comics portrayed in Stan Lee’s Bullpen Bulletins and Stan’s Soapbox over five decades was just as much a fantasy as any Captain America adventure.
Howe’s clearly a Marvel Comics reader, who knows the comics and where they fit into the development of the art and the industry, but that’s not what his book’s about. He’s interested in the people who created those comics, the editorial regimes under which they worked, the constraints and (increasingly) managerial and commercial dictates that drove Marvel’s course and, increasingly, the economic and entrepreneurial ineptitude that forced the world’s largest comics company into prolonged bankruptcy.
The story is divided into five sections, the first of which covering the thirty years between Martin Goodman’s move into comics, and what many expected would be a fatal blow at the end of the Sixties, a decade of almost unrelieved success.
This section is the perhaps the most important. The company’s foundation by Martin Goodman is explained, its early successes, the creators of the initial stars, and the arrival of seventeen year old Stanley Leiber, cousin to Goodman’s wife, with aspirations to be a great writer but in the meantime growing rapidly from gopher into editor. To protect his good name for the future, Leiber used an abbreviated, less-Jewish pseudonym: Stan Lee.
Howe profitably spends some time on this period, and skips relatively quickly through the insignificant Fifties, the era in which comics first started to lose its audience, and in which Goodman’s comics division declined to Leiber and one production man operating off a single desk in the corner of one floor of a large Madison Avenue building.
All this is prelude to the real Marvel story itself, which begins with Fantastic Four 1 in 1961, even though the company, which had previously gone under the names of Timely and Atlas, did not name itself Marvel until the following year.
What happened is the stuff of legend. It is also the stuff of bitter argument, and Howe gives equal exposure to both without seeking to analyse between either.
For fifty years the legend, the Marvel version, has been that Martin Goodman played golf one afternoon with his opposite number at DC, Jack Leibowitz, who boasted that their new title, Justice League of America, was topping the sales chart. Goodman returned to the office and instructed Lee to throw together a superhero team to cream off some of those sales. Lee, seeing his life disappearing without genuine achievement, was talked by his English wife Joan into putting something of himself into the book. He devised the Fantastic Four as he know them, and handed it to his most reliable and talented freelance artist Jack Kirby to draw.
Not until the mid Eighties, with the industry in an uproar over the issue of return of his original art, did Kirby speak out and contradict the legend. His story was that he arrived at the office one day to deliver his latest job, he found the company being closed down, desks being moved out and Stan Lee crying: Kirby told them to hold on, that he would create a bunch of comics that would sell and keep the company afloat.
It’s an argument that remains unsettled, and Howe wisely makes no attempt to take sides, not then nor in any of the later instances where and the creation of characters – and the potential ownership of them in changing copyright legislation – becomes important to the company.
The Fantastic Four was a tremendous success, and has been Marvel’s flagship book ever since. It’s the foundation stone, the first, just as Superman is for DC and, just as Superman did in 1938, it was the beginning of an astonishing creative wave, as character followed character: Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Doctor Strange, Iron Man, Nick Fury, Thor, the X-Men, and dozens more.
These are faithfully recorded by Howe, but his concentration is on the tiny handful of people responsible for writing and drawing these characters and the even tinier number responsible for running Marvel itself.
Lee was at the centre, as both editor and writer. Even though Marvel were, by their distribution deal, restricted to only eight titles a month, Lee ‘wrote’ all of these, setting them against a common New York background that allowed characters to cross each others paths all the time, leading readers to other titles.
He was able to do this by an approach now known as the Marvel Method, though it pre-dated the company by at least a decade. Lee would furnish a plot of greater or lesser detail that the artist would break down (or in many cases would effectively devise himself from beginning to end), returning the pencilled pages for Lee to then add narrative captions, speech and thought bubbles in his distinctive, hip style.
It was fast and effective, especially in the case of Lee’s two most important freelance artists, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Kirby was a twenty year veteran, with an astonishing list of creations behind him: with Lee he would create almost every successful character Marvel had. Ditko was a loner, an enigma with firm views who would co-create Spider-Man and Doctor Strange and make these contrasting titles unique.
But whilst Lee hogged the credit, like any true salesman, the role these two artists played on their series grew ever bigger. Soon, Ditko worked completely alone, not even speaking to Lee, dropping off complete issues for Lee to dialogue, having no idea of what the story would be until the pencils arrived.
And Kirby helmed the Fantastic Four, expanding the story, and Marvel’s Universe, into realms undreamt off, with nary, or barely a word from Lee. In short, in both men’s eyes, they were writing the story, devising its twists and turns, conceiving and directing its development. And getting neither credit, nor nothing but penciller’s page rates.
With Marvel growing spectacularly throughout the decade, its comics successful both commercially and artistically, the underlying story is of this dichotomy. Ditko walked away in 1965, Kirby in 1970. This was the hammer-blow that ends the first section.
Howe goes on to make clear the much-denied stories that many at Marvel, Lee included, feared that Marvel could not survive without Kirby. Indeed, it’s at this same point, which Marvel attracting commercial interest from outside, that Lee starts to withdraw, permanently, from the creative side of Marvel. Since it’s not the purpose of his book, Howe does not make anything of this point vis-à-vis the creative issue, but I’m under no such self-imposed restriction so I’ll point out that before the creative flood that was the Lee/Kirby collaboration, Kirby created dozens of characters, settings (and even an entire genre) whilst Lee created nothing memorable. After their partnership broke up, Kirby created numerous characters and settings whilst Lee created nothing memorable.
I know who I believe.
The Seventies, which occupy the book’s second section, is a time of competing interests, between freelancers and successive editors-in-chief pulling in all directions, and moving Marvel in those directions because there is no effective oversight or control that prevents them from doing so. The comics are tremendously uneven, but they are creator-led with a vengeance, by the first new generation of writers and artists to come into the industry since the Forties, and the first to come in as fans, wanting the chance to take over the playground themselves.
The price for this is coherence. The business side is not even of secondary importance to the dominant figures of this period, and Marvel became a sink of inefficiency that cried out for a strong leading figure to replace the long-removed Lee, now Marvel’s Publisher and Ambassador-at-large, as Editor-in-Chief
This comes in the form of the controversial Jim Shooter – a former boy wonder who had begun writing comics at the age of 13 – who dominated Marvel and its titles. His is the book’s third section, and the story is of first the gaining of control, and the regulation of Marvel as an organisation, alienating a lot of influential people along the way, for both good and bad reasons.
But it’s also the story of a megalomaniac, growing ever more determined to force everything and everyone into the confines of a single editorial vision – his own – and creating havoc and anger among senior contributors who fell foul of his plans. Howe manages to raise a degree of sympathy towards Shooter, which I never thought I’d feel, by the implicit link between his increasingly domineering behaviour at Marvel, and his years as a teenage writer working at DC under Mort Weisinger. I’d never previously considered that Weisinger had been as deeply unpleasant and overbearing to his teenage underling as he had to every other full-grown man who had had to deal with him.
Once Shooter is displaced, the nature of the story shifts and, I think, to the detriment of the book. This is not to criticise Howe, but rather reality. Although the company had high spots ahead, and periods when it was as commercially powerful as it had ever been, the story from the early Nineties onwards has been one of managed decline – a decline all but ensured by the crazy corporate practices to which Marvel was subjected. Increasingly, editorial becomes subordinate to managerial demands, and inevitably figures appear in the editorial side of the company that are adept and eager at second-guessing managements ‘needs’.
Creatively, the story of the last twenty years at Marvel has been of decreasing control, or even interest, in the contents of the comics. Perhaps its naive to imagine that was ever an issue, and the rot starts long before the Nineties. But it’s particularly ironic at the company that once, justifiably, called itself the House of Ideas.
Nor is the story complete, leaving the ending to peter out. What’s in the comics is of rapidly decreasing importance, and who is writing and drawing them, and what surrounds that, is equally irrelevant to the tale.
Howe brings the story almost up-to-date, to the tremendous success of the Avengers film in May 2012, but Marvel’s history ends in midstream, with more to come, and the book is unsatisfying in that respect.
However, in its attention to detail, in the depth to which Howe goes to give each side its viewpoint, never seeking to impose a dictate on the reader’s understanding, it is an exceptionally good depiction of Marvel’s history in the people who have been, at one time and another, the makers of that story.
This is a fascinating and honest book, and I recommend it highly.