Michael Fleisher R.I.P.: A Study in Notoriety


Sometimes, when someone famous dies, it overshadows the passing of someone else who deserves attention. The day Sir Laurence Olivier died was also the day Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and many more, died, which was a much more personal loss for me, and one that, understandably, went virtually unnoticed.

Stephen Hawking’s death today has coincided with that of a figure who is much less deserving of attention than Mel Blanc, a former comic book writer who has not been involved with the field for decades, but who once achieved an unwelcome form of notoriety that played out when I was fully involved with comics.

This was Michael Fleisher. He left behind him a reputation that, for a time, he seemed to revel in, but which ultimately did him no good. Fleisher got his start in writing comics in the mid-Seventies. He had been installed at DC’s offices to research a proposed six volume history of comics, and from there started to get story assignments.

His first regular series became one of the most notorious of all time in mainstream comics, the revival of DC’s Forties character, The Spectre, in Adventure Comics.

Adventure was being edited by Joe Orlando, who had recently undergone a street mugging at gunpoint that left him furious and frustrated. The Spectre was the spirit of murdered Police Detective, Jim Corrigan, sent back by (impliedly) God, to fight evils with vast supernatural power.

The Spectre had been revived in the Sixties, as part of the Golden Age revival spearheaded by editor Julius Schwartz, where he had been treated as an almost God-like being. Fleisher proposed to go back to the root of the character, as a ruthless dispatcher of criminals. Orlando was just in the mood for that.

Fleisher played around a bit with The Spectre, taking him back to the original state, where Corrigan and The Spectre were the same being and both a ghost, ignoring the development that had seen Corrigan’s body restored to life and become a host for The Spectre. He introduced a new girlfriend in heiress Gwen Sterling (replacing original girlfriend Clarice Winston) and allowed her, unlike Clarice, to know that Jim was a ghost. And he thoroughly confused which Earth this was all taking place on by having a rookie cop respond to a sarcastic reference to ‘Clark Kent’ with a ‘Gee! Are you really Superman?’

But these were peripherals. Fleisher’s series was about one thing, and one thing only: how the Spectre slaughtered the villains. There was a formula to the series: sadistic and brutal crooks would prey on ordinary people without conscience: the Spectre would come along and kill them. The game was in what twisted manner, wonderfully illustrated by the great Jim Aparo, the Spectre would act. These included expanding a hairdresser’s scissors to massive size and cutting him in half, turning a fake crystal ball merchant into crystal an knocking him over to shatter and, most sickening of all, turning a man into wood and feeding him through a woodcutter.

The series was selling, but it was also arousing a lot of fan opposition. Apparently, Publisher Carmine Infantino, after taking a lot of heat for the series, looked for an excuse to end it and the moment the sales dipped, it was gone.

The series ran 10 issues. Twelve scripts had been purchased and two were left undrawn, which was exceptional behaviour for DC Comics in that era. They wanted The Spectre dead, which he had been all along, to be fair. Actually, the series ended appropriately with a two-parter in which Corrigan pleaded with God to restore his humanity, God did so without telling him, Corrigan promptly got shot, believing he was still a ghost (in this series, even God was a sadistic bastard), and then he got killed and went back to being The Spectre.

Fleisher was upset about the criticism of his work on this series, protesting that he had done nothing that The Spectre hadn’t done in the Golden Age. That may be so, but there is a world of difference between that being done in primitive, stiff art by Bernard Bailey and high-detail, polished slick art from Aparo.

And I am moderately confident that Bailey and co-creator Jerry Seigel never wrote a scene in which the Spectre chops a woman into seven separate parts in a single panel.

I’d bought and enjoyed the series, which appeared in the first year I came back to reading comics. I didn’t make a point of following Fleisher’s later career, though I was aware that he had acquired a high reputation after taking over DC’s scar-faced western bounty-hunter, Jonah Hex. I never read any of this series, but Fleisher was again noted for the twisted aspects of a Special he wrote, featuring Hex in his sixties, being killed by being shot in the back, like Wild Bill Hickock at the poker table, and his body being stuffed for an exhibition at a Wild West Fair. Not exactly John Wayne, nor even Clint Eastwood.

Then there was the matter of Fleisher’s (only?) novel, Chasing Hairy. Yes, from the dubious title onwards, this appears to have been a pretty repellent thing. I have never seen the book, let alone read it, but I have read a summary of its plot, and seen many quotes, and there seems to be general consensus that this is a pretty repulsive piece of misogyny, including sexual violence towards women.

What I do know is that Fleisher bought advertising space to promote his book, in which he received permission to feature several of the comics characters he had written at that point. These included Jonah Hex, acting scared by its contents, and Spider-Woman, relishing how super-sexy it made her feel, and that Fleisher certainly knew how to turn a woman on. By forcing her to perform a blow job and them setting her alight? Kinky.

And like Charles Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman, Fleisher seemed to have something of a bondage fetish, allegedly constantly trying to introduce bound women into his stories, and having been complained about by more than one Editor, technically responsible for the content of the comic, for this tendency.

This was Michael Fleisher’s career, up to that point in 1983 when Gary Goth interviewed Harlan Ellison for The Comics Journal 53. This was a free-ranging talk, with Ellison offering unbridled opinion about multiple subjects. When it came to Fleisher, Ellison was enthusiastic about his work, saying that “there’s a genuinely twisted imagination at work” and describing it as “Bugfuck”. You might not agree with the actual wording, but it’s clear from context that Ellison is praising Fleisher, even to the extent to comparing him with H P Lovecraft.

Unfortunately, Fleisher did not see it that way. His immediate response was to demand an apology and retraction from TCJ. This would have been considered, but Fleisher went so far as to writ his own multi-page apology and retraction, including demands for banner front page headlines, in terms deliberately intended to be as humiliating as possible to the Journal. No magazine would have conceded that, and the editors determined to investigate the aggrandising claims Fleisher was making, but were halted when he issued proceedings against TCJ and Ellison.

The Journal based their defence on their First Amendment rights.

The case ran for years, and polarised much of the comics industry, based mostly on individuals’ reactions to the abrasive Journal and its provocative stance. Journal publishers, Fantagraphics, published several fundraiser comics, featuring material donated by writers and artists, to pay legal bills, and at one time were accused by one of their enemies of taking everyone for a ride and that they were spending the money on cars etc.

Some less publicised efforts were made to raise money for Fleisher, but his main supporter in the action appeared to be Marvel Editor-in-Chief, Jim Shooter, who gave up prodigious amounts of time to give evidence in Court about the damage the interview had done to Fleisher’s reputation in the market, and thus his income (which increased during the time it took to get the case to Court and was accordingly argued to have risen less than it would have without the defamation).

Eventually, the case went to Court with hearings lasting for weeks, after which the jury took ninety minutes to find for the Journal and Ellison. The word went around at the time that a juror had been overheard saying that they none of them believed a word of Shooter’s testimony.

The verdict came in just in time for a very short note to appear in TCJ issue 114. Gary Groth’s victory speech to the fan press was a reading of the First Amendment. But TCJ 115 went to town, with a cover dominated by Jim Shooter giving testimony and practically the whole issue given over to the course of the case and Trial transcripts. Fleisher’s ‘demanded’ apology was printed, as was the aborted refutation of his claims therein. Fleisher’s testimony didn’t arrive but Shooter’s was there in full, and it was not pretty reading, especially for those writers and artists at Marvel who suddenly found themselves officially reduced to puppets of the editor…

Shooter was growing increasingly unpopular for his dictatorial ways around Marvel, and the hostility around what was seen by many as an attempt to crush a magazine that constantly railed against him and Marvel was at one time cited as contributing to Shooter’s sacking as Editor-in-Chief not so many moons later.

It did for Fleisher’s career as a comic book writer. After this debacle, he disappeared from the industry, cut all ties with his former colleagues, and was believed to have been living in Ontario when word was passed that he’d died.

I doubt it would have made much of a splash anyway, but today it’s not even ephemera.

And there doesn’t seem to be much reaction in comics circles Stateside either. Fleisher actually died as far back as February 2, aged 75. He was a good writer, technically, but from all I read of his work, his imagination took him into dark and dubious areas that I personally would not want to navigate. His biggest, and self-induced problem was that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t see that Harlan Ellison was praising him for that, and he started a lawsuit that blew up spectacularly in his face. Conspiracy theorists even contended that Fleisher was under the influence of Jim Shooter, who saw him as a means to crush The Comics Journal: certainly, that self-composed apology is more of an attempt at humiliation than apology and reparation.

Whether there’s any truth in that, I have no idea. Jim Shooter’s attempt to use Fleisher’s lawsuit for exactly that purpose sure blew up in his face.

Whatever the truths, Fleisher has gone into the dark. The legacy he leaves is minimal and corrupted. Even if the news had not coincided with Stephen Hawking, his passing would probably only been of interest to a few of us, who remember the saga. Not a legacy worth leaving.

If you can’t go wildly OTT at a time like this, when can you?

 

Comics in the Seventies: A Game of Pages


We still remember, we who were there

If you were to ask me the page content of the average, 2016, 32 page comic book (or ‘floppy’ as they are commonly called now), I would have no idea. Off the top of my head, I would guess twenty. That is, twenty pages of art and story, i.e., content, out of a thirty-two page package.

That’s not a good percentage but, believe me, it’s not the worst it’s ever been.

When it was first invented, in the Thirties, the American comic book consisted of 64 pages for a dime. Due to War-time paper restrictions, that package was successively reduced to (briefly) 56 pages, then 48 pages, before being reduced even further, in the Fifties, to its present format of 32 pages. All still for that original 10c.

When I first discovered American comics, in the early Sixties, comic books were taking that first, tentative steps into increasing their prices, gouging their customers for an extra 2 cents. At that point, the average DC comic consisted of approximately 24 pages of story and art, a full 75% of the package.

It took nearly the whole decade before the next increase was put through, this time to 15c, but the Oil-Inflation Seventies saw increase after increase, at intervals of eighteen months to two years. In the meantime, the companies desperately attempted to head off, or at least delay such increases, but cutting costs. Artists no longer drew originals on boards two-up, but were restricted to 1.5 up (i.e., twice, or one and a half times the size of the actual printed art).

Paper quality was cut, to cheaper, more porous stock on which lines and colours soaked in and ran. Steel printing plates gave way to cheaper and easier to engrave plastic printing plates, which blurred and distorted lines long before the print run was completed. And page counts were cut. Fewer pages, lower payments to writers and artists paid by the number of pages completed and bought.

DC had tried to get out in front of the curve in 1971, jumping their comics directly from 15c to 25c whilst increasing the size of the package, to 40 pages, the extra pages entirely devoted to content, in the form of reprints: those in Jack Kirby’s ‘Fourth World’ books were prime Golden Age Kirby and Simon material.

This plan was undercut by one of Martin Goodman’s last, shark-like tricks at Marvel. The plan was for everybody to increase the package at the same time, which Goodman did, but only for one month, cutting back immediately to 32 pages at 20c, far faster than DC, with its more sclerotic management structure, to react. DC struggled back to 32 pages at 20c, no reprints, but the content went down to 20 pages, then eighteen and finally, by mid-decade, seventeen.

There was another attempt on DC’s part to change the deteriorating status quo. In 1974, they went off on another bigger package run.

This was the year of the 50c comic, which was just coming in as I rediscovered American comics and started buying them again. Basically, it was a rerun of the 25c experiment writ large: for 50c, the reader got a squarebound, 100 page package, containing the standard 20 pages of new art, plus a massive wodge of reprints, varying as to the title in question. The enhanced Justice League of America was the first place in which I was able to read Golden Age Justice Society reprints.

It lasted a year, during which the price increased to 60c, before the experiment was carried off, and it was all back to the bog-standard floppy at eighteen pages. As an experiment, I enjoyed it, though it was very dependant on the choice of reprints.

The best of that era was, undoubtedly, Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson’s Manhunter, the new back-up in Detective. It lasted seven issues, six of them as a back-up strip to the Caped Crusader, and if it hadn’t been for the Fifty Cent Comic, I’d have never noticed it.

Detective Comics was in another sales trough in 1973. Julius Schwarz, the ‘Now Look’ Batman and the TV series had saved Bruce Wayne from cancellation in 1964, but the bubble had burst and, in an effort to drum up sales with a new approach, Archie Goodwin was brought in as editor (and writer) of Detective, which was down to a bi-monthly schedule.

Upfront, Goodwin went for unusual offbeat stories, by artists not normally associated with Batman, but for a back-up, he wanted a complete contrast: a brightly costumed, globe-trotting hero with a strong martial flavour. With the then-newcomer Simonson, Goodwin devised Manhunter as a seven page, very taut back-up, tacking the character onto the back of the Forties hero of the same name.

It was a massive creative success, as witness the number of times it has been reprinted since. In addition to buying the original run, I have had no less than three different collections. It won industry plaudits by the ton, and it stands up beautifully four decades on, in a way that the vast majority of Seventies comics just don’t.

It didn’t do anything for Detective‘s sales, however. A year on, and unhappy with management at DC, Goodwin relinquished the editorship and writing, and moved on to Marvel. Julius Schwartz, resuming as editor, had no interest in continuing Manhunter, and Goodwin was able to get agreement for his final issue to be a 20 page crossover with Batman, providing a definitive end to Paul ‘Manhunter’ Kirk’s story. It was that ending, so rare and precious, that made Manhunter the creative success it was.

Had I not seen, and been intrigued by the first Detective fifty center, I would probably never have seen the series. Goodwin’s first issue, with the debut Manhunter back-up, was the final 32 page floppy, and I was lucky to scrabble round and fnd a still-available copy, which was nearly as difficult to ensure as it had been in the Sixties.

No doubt I would have heard about it later, maybe bought one of the reprints at some point, but I have always found a deeper attachment to those series I have had to accumulate, in monthly instalments, the story-front creeping along, offering endless speculation about what might follow. Reading the whole thing at once, cover to cover, no delay at any of the cliffhangers, is never quite as enthralling.

So the year was up, the Fifty/Sixty Centers vanished and DC went back to floppies.

Seventeen pages was the nadir though. once upon a time, it might have almost been a luxury: throughout the Fifties, and well into the Sixties, most DC comics offered two stories per issue, both of around twelve pages in length. Its writers were veterans, long used to the professional demands of telling a clear, concise story, with a beginning, middle and end, in twelve pages or thereabouts, so seventeen pages ought to have been easily manageable.

But this was not the Sixties any more, and that generation of writers were no longer writing comics. Their replacements had been brought up, drawn in to the industry, by Marvel Comics, who concentrated on book-length stories to a greater extent, and on ongoing stories, in which the three unities were rarely within the same covers. The writers of the Seventies wanted to write comics like that. They had never had the training to produce short stories. They neither wanted to nor were capable of writing satisfying stories in only seventeen pages.

One writer was comfortable with the form, however, Denny O’Neil, who wrote perhaps my favourite page of comics from the Seventies.

It was a bog-standard Batman adventure of the era, drawn by Ernie Chan, and the villain was the Riddler. Batman frustrated him a couple of times, so the Riddler headed back to his new secret HQ, at Gotham Zoo. The page in question covered a single scene.

The Riddler approaches the Zoo entrance concealed by trenchcoat and hat pulled down. He’s frustrated, planning on fleeing, his body language is hunched, withdrawn, downbeat. In short, he is not a happy bunny. However, he is waylaid, by a boy aged about eight, trying to catch his attention. The Riddler is in no mood for such things and tells the kid to beat it, cram, but he blurts out that all he wants to do is tell him a Riddle.

Mr Nigma transforms in an instant. he’s down on his kness, level with the kid’s face, holding his shoulders and insisting, “Yes, please do! Please do!” “Do you want me to tell you the story of the bed?” The kid asks. “go on, go on,” the Riddler says, barely able to contain himself. “I can’t,” the kid says, with the kind of perfect cheesy grin of a little boy who’s come up with something funny all by himself and just has to share it, “It hasn’t been made up yet!”

The final panel shows the kid approaching his parents. “Dad, look what the nice man gave me,” he says. “A $100 bill?” the dad gasps. In the background, The Riddler is walking through the Zoo gates, but his body language is transformed. He’s striding out, head up and back, almost strutting.

It’s a magical page. In structural terms, it’s completely redundant and irrelevant. The story could be told with the other sixteen pages without the smallest of changes, and this scene would not be missed, nor any gap felt. As such, with only seventeen pages available, it could be described as poor writing.

And yet it’s brilliant, because it’s the only page of the script on which anybody does something human, that is not purely and simply a function of the plot. And this was from a very early point, at which I had not even begun to get bored with superhero dynamics and fights. Which is why I can remember each panel of that page, whilst I have no recollection of anything from any of the other sixteen pages.

It wasn’t tenable, however. Seventeen crappy pages with crappy stories and crappy art and the price going up five or ten cents a year, year-on-year. So DC shifted out Carmine Infantino as Publisher and brought in an outsider, Jeanette Kahn, a novice in comics but a children’s magazine publishing success.

Who, once she had settled herself into the Publisher’s chair, came up with a brilliant idea to move forward and secure comics’ future.

Bigger comics. With more pages.

It was known as the DC Explosion. It was planned as a massive uplift to the DC line, introducing new characters and new titles, but the heart of it was that, in order to avoid the awkward jump from 35c to 40c, DC’s comics would hurdle all the way to 50c, but for a 40 page package, of which the additional eight pages would all be of content: story and art, and all of it new: no reprints.

It wasn’t exactly original, except for the fact that the extra pages would be all new. Some titles would add them to the previous page count: the Justice League of America would escape the straitjacket of seventeen pages for the relative freedom of twenty-five, but other titles would add back-ups. Old characters unable to sustain series would be revived, new concepts and ideas would be tried with the support of the lead feature.

It was bold, it was exciting, it was one of the biggest fucking disasters mainstream comics has ever suffered.

Because the week the first titles of the Explosion were launched, the sales figures came in at Warner Brothers, and they were bad. Far worse than had been expected. The word came down from on high with the speed and force of a Jovian thunderbolt, and the word was No. No more forty page 50c comics, get back to 32 page floppies, and cut the number of titles. Including scheduled comics which never actually were published, almost half the entire DC line was cancelled in an afternoon, reducing the line to its ‘core’ titles. Everything remotely experimental vanished in a day. The bottom half of the line ceased to be tenable and went into the hole. DC, who had been big with publicity about it’s great leap forward, which had been building its stable of creators, suffered a massive blow to its credibility that the majority at the time thought it would never recover from.

Down the street, at Marvel, its recently installed Editor-in-Chief, Jim Shooter, had been sniffy about the whole thing anyway, dismissive of the idea that the fans would even notice an increase of eight pages, nearly half as much story again. Former editor-in-chief, Marv Wolfman, set about discouraging eager new talent from getting into comics: in five years time, there wouldn’t be any.

We know now that he was wrong, and ironically Wolfman would play a major role in leading DC and, in its wake, comics out of the slough of despond of what inevitably became known as the DC Implosion. Page counts went up, despite Shooter’s arrogance. So did paper quality, and costs, the latter being inevitable given that the only way of further reducing the cost of producing a 1977 floppy would have been to hire a hall and have people pay to sit there whilst the writer read the script and the artist did chalk-talk sketches on a blackboard borrowed from the local high school.

Yet in that era of desperation, when the death of comics was being predicted almost every other week, there were still comics of quality that prevailed over the conditions in which they were created. That was the era of Manhunter, and that was when good writers could come up with pages like the Riddler being made happy by a kid’s riddle he’d never heard before.

They didn’t even need seventeen pages to produce delight that’s lasted with me for forty years, proving yet again that there is something more to life than ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’.

Marvel Comics – the Untold Story, by Sean Howe


marvuntold

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.