As it must to us all


It’s been announced today that Stanley Martin Lieber, known to anyone interested in comics as Stan Lee has died, aged 95. Lee’s career has been one of tremendous popularity, and no little controversy over where the credit for seminal stories created with the likes of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko truly lies, but this is not the time or place for arguments. The very least that can be said for Lee is that he created a writing style that was individual and influential, and perfect for the Marvel Revolution of the Sixties, and for that alone he deserves his place in history.

Comics writers and artists tend to live a long time, so 95 comes as no surprise. And Lee was the last of them, the giants. The world is much less colourful for his passing.

Happy Birthday to the King


This won’t be enough. It can’t possibly be adequate because I don’t know enough, I wasn’t there at any of the right times, and because I don’t have enough of the right temperament. But today is an anniversary, and because of who it is it demands recognition, even from those of us who can’t do the job justice.

Today is a birthday, the birthday of someone no longer with us, a man born Jacob Kurtzberg who achieved fame under an anglicised pen name which he later took officially as his own. He was Jack Kirby, and they called him the King, and rarely if ever has a nickname been more fully justified.

Jack Kirby was a comic books artist. Many would call him THE comic books artist, and if you restrict that definition to the superhero field that has dominated the form, for good or ill, for so long, you’d hardly find anyone to argue. In terms of dynamism, energy, imagination, inspiration, the King was unequalled. Whilst nt discounting Stan Lee, there are viable arguments that Jack Kirby was responsible for creating Marvel as it is. His characters dominate Marvel, and the number of creations that sprang from them will probably never be countable.

But whatever you can say about Kirby’s approach to art, and many far better qualified than I to analyse it have worshipped at its feet and drawn untold inspiration, there is one aspect in which Jack Kirby can never be equalled. The man was a Creation Machine. He created more and more varied characters than anyone else, without stopping, almost without thinking. They just poured out of him, until the end of his life.

Kirby just was a marvel. He would have been 101 today. He deserved to be 101, to be physically immortal and not ‘merely’ creatively immortal.  And everyonee who met him to this day misses him like crazy.

Everyone in this picture. Everyone.

Steve Ditko R.I.P.


And then there was one.

Without wishing to slight the contributions of those others who were there in thee beginning, it’s inarguable that the success of Marvel Comics, and everything that has followed on from the extraordinary period of creativity, rests on the work of three men. You may dispute the order of importance on another day when such things can once again be debated, but these men were Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. ‘King’ Kirby died long ago, in 1994, and now Steve Ditko has been found dead, in his apartment, aged 90. Only Stan Lee remains of that essential trio.

Ditko, who was famously private, indeed reclusive, was far less productive than Kirby, but was every bit his equal. It was Ditko who, when Lee was dissatisfied with Kirby’s first designs, took over the project, bringing to it his unique perspective, his odd, almost angular art and the sense of brooding and misery that Kirby, the boundlessly positive and elemental force could not provide. Stan Lee supplied the words, but it was Ditko who showed us Peter Parker, and turned him into the Amazing Spider-Man.

If that was not enough, and for the average creative person it would be a crowning glory, Ditko also created Marvel’s master of magic, Dr Strange, and the whole otherwordly realm of the fantastic that the Doctor occupied.

For all that the decades and countless contributors have added to the story, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange remain what Steve Ditko created them to be.

Many looked at Doctor Strange in the Sixties and concluded that Steve Ditko was one cool cat, and obviously familiar with the effects of such things as Lysergic Acid. But Ditko was the epitome of a conservative gentleman, short-haired, short-sleeved, personally abstemious. Some imaginations don’t need chemical stimulation and Ditko’s was as weird as they came, naturally.

In that, however, lay the seeds of the breach with Marvel. Ditko was a man of firm thought and principles, deeply committed to Objectivism, the philosophy spawned by Ayn Rand. The relationship with Stan Lee rapidly became untenable. Ditko started to plot and draw Spider-Man on his own. When he was due to deliver the completed pages to Marvel, Lee would take care not to be seen. It would be the first he knew of this month’s issue, and now he would add the words.

Then, one day, Ditko left Marvel. Delivered his latest Spider-Man, announced he wouldn’t be doing any more, left. He would return, much later, do other series for Marvel, create the cult favourite, Squirrel Girl, but never again enjoy the prominence and influence he had in those half-dozen years. There were stints at other companies, other creations. For Charlton comics (who may have paid the lowest rates but who didn’t interfere with his work to any appreciable extent) he created Captain Atom, the new Blue Beetle and another cult favourite, The Question, all of whom now belong to DC, for whom he created The Creeper and Hawk and Dove.

All of these would distinguish the record of a lesser man, though they were none of them Spidey or Doc Strange.

Much of Ditko’s work, and he remained prolific throughout his life, ended up self-published. He remained a master cartoonist, but devoted his time to things that expressed his opinions and his Objectivism, a philosophy that remains attractive only to a minority. It limited him, but it was Ditko is his most pure and refine, and at the end of the day it was the artist being true to himself at all costs.

Steve Ditko stayed away from fame and public exposure. He would not allow himself to be interviewed or even photographed. He was ‘featured’ in a Jonathan Ross documentary on comics for the BBC, but that meant that he agreed to meet Ross, alone, without cameras or recording equipment, and that Ross agree not to repeat anything Ditko said! True to his word, Ross disappeared into a Manhattan building, reappeared visibly thrilled, and gave nothing away.

And now there is only one, only the writer/editor/figure of some controversy, Stan Lee. But Marvel, and everything else, all across the field of comics, is a legacy with three pillars, and Steve Ditko will live in memory forever for being one of those pillars.

Uncollected Thoughts: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2


You know what to expect when you go to see a Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie: just leave your brain behind and settle back to enjoy furious, breathless pace, a barrage of high-quality CGI and, if it’s the Guardians of the Galaxy, a barrel of laughs. So I had a great time this afternoon, hiding from the stifling heat in a cinema in which there were about a dozen people and I, in row D, the most advanced.

Actually, the best bit of the film was the opening scene, by which I don’t intend to slate any of the rest of it, but it had me laughing my head off. We open on a planet known as The Sovereign, populated by gold-skinned, gold-haired, very religious and self-satisfied douchebags, led by Ayesha the High Priestess (played by Elizabeth Debicki, of whom I was not previously aware, who made a serious impression on my, er, sensibilities).

The Guardians have been hired to prevent an incredibly large space squid from stealing certain valuable McGuffins, I’m sorry, batteries. Everyone’s getting prepared, including Rocket Raccoon, who’s hooking up the sound system for some more Seventies tunes, when Drax the Destroyer protests. For once, Peter Quill, Star-Lord, agrees, at which point the monster arrives and the battle commences.

But we don’t get to see it. Instead, the camera focuses on Baby Groot, the living tree whose sole line of dialogue is the Librarian-like, “I am Groot”. Little Groot fiddles with the plugs, connects them at the third attempt and, with the battle raging above, around but mostly behind him, proceeds to dance, adorably, laughably, obliviously, to The Electric Light Orchestra’s ‘Mister Blue Sky’.

Now ELO are far from my favourite Seventies band, and indeed ‘Mister Blue Sky’ is the very song that saw Jeff Lynne and I part musical company irrevocably, but here is little Groot lost in the music whilst bits of the fight fly, crash and blast past him, and all he does is dance on, and the camera never pans out and it’s all so ridiculously silly that you can’t help but be in a good mood for the rest of the film, none of which quite comes up to that but hey, you can’t be sublime all the time.

It’s a high speed, slambang affair, hopping like mad, during which Quill discovers that his missing father is actually Kurt Russell, no actually Ego, the Living Planet, an immortal Celestial. Quill’s immortal too, as long as he doesn’t quibble with Daddy’s plan to expanding himself so that he isn’t just this planet anymore but the whole goddam universe. Which, naturally, he does. Quibble, I mean.

It’s save the Galaxy time, folks! After they’ve done it twice, Rocket reckons they can put their price up.

As for the rest, there’s plenty of colourful character, patented quipping, genuinely funny interactions and lines, the wringing dry of every piece of fun possible, and all of both highly professional and highly effective. If you go in expecting to be entertained , along with being run through the odd emotional gamut every now and then, you’ll be fine. Expect great significance or moral ambiguity, and you’re better off going to see the film next door.

There’s more room for Karen Gillan this time, as Nebula, though she’s still blue and bald, though after a sisterly chat with Gamora, the Galaxy’s Greatest Assassin, not quite to psychopathic. And Pom Klementieff puts in a fine turn as the naive empath, Mantis, though the latter’s creator, Steve Engelhart, is righteously distraught that, except visually, this Mantis has no resemblance to his character.

And I’ve already mentioned Elizabeth Debicki, haven’t I? Seriously, she’s Eddie Cochran levels of Somethin’ Else.

I’m glad to see she’s going to be back for Vol. 3, in respect of which she appears to be growing a monster and a killer she plans to call Adam. Oh-ho! say all the fans simultaneously: Warlock, we presume.

I’m not going to go into this film in any greater depth because it doesn’t require it. It’s been criticised for not being as ‘fresh’ as the first one, and sure it’s a whole heap of ‘more of the same only different’, but I watched the first one three years ago and I can happily sit down to something like that every three years or so.

And having seen the trailer for it, I am so going to go see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and not just because it’s got Cara Delivigne in it. Super space opera on a budget fit to match the original French comics, which were Star Wars long before Star Wars. I think that’s going to be fun, like this.

 

Uncollected Thoughts: Neil Gaiman’s ‘Norse Mythology’


For the first time, I’m rather disappointed by a new Neil Gaiman book, especially when the subject seems to be so close to his heart and his skills.

We ought to be in sync on this one: it may not have been the same book, but I too encountered the Norse Myths in the mid-Sixties, though without the prior mediation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby via The Mighty Thor, and I’ve always felt a greater affinity with them than the rather more famous, and studied, Greek Myths.

And, as far as my memory of the book I was bought (probably from Shudehill Bookstalls, like so many others of my childhood) is concerned, Gaiman has retold all the tales I remember.

So I ought to like this book, but the truth is that I found it disappointing for the most fundamental reason that if I hadn’t known Neil Gaiman had written this, I would never have guessed it.

All good writers have a ‘voice’. This has been true of all of Neil Gaiman’s work to date, however diverse the subject or medium. It’s a slightly formal tone, a slightly archaic tone, a way of expressing things, but it isn’t anywhere present in this book. It could be any author, except that it’s an author reading to children, and reading aloud. It lacks personality, it lacks individuality. The tales are left to fend for themselves, with no authorial input to characterise them.

Without Gaiman’s voice, this could be anyone writing this version of the myths, and that’s precisely why this book doesn’t work for me.

You should know better


What about him?

There’s a charmlessly naive puff-piece in the Guardian today, by someone who should know better. Damien Walter, a writer of SF and other speculative fiction, has used his regular ‘Weird Things’ column to suggest that ex-Marvel editor and writer Stan Lee is the greatest storyteller in history.

This is a response to the newly-published Graphic Novel biography about Lee, written by Peter Davod and drawn by Colleen Doran. Walter waffles on in awe about Lee, giving him sole credit for creation of all Marvel’s major characters who inhabit film and TV today. Here are a couple of quotes:

“For the best part of two decades, through the 1960s and 70s, Lee conceived and scripted the pantheon of superheroes that has made Marvel arguably the most significant shared universe in today’s entertainment landscape.”

“Spider-Man, the X-­Men, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, SHIELD, Daredevil: all of them were created by Stan Lee.”

For the best part of two decades, eh? Through the 70s, eh? Are we talking about the Stan Lee who stood down from the Marvel editorship in 1972 and ceased writing any of its titles? Through the 70s? I mean, don’t get me wrong, Stan Lee was writing for more than two decades, it’s just that to get that, you have to include the entire 50s, in which Stan Lee did not write a single story that anyone remembers.

As for that list of creations, well, let me make a petty quibble first. The X-Men of the movie franchise, indeed the X-Me that have been colossally successful since the late Seventies, are primarily composed of characters with whom Stan Lee had no contact. Cyclops, Professor X, and Jean Grey here and there, yes, these were members of the original X-Men, but the rest? Storm? Wolverine? No.

But this is, as I say, a petty quibble. Stan Lee was indeed writer of the original X-Men, and indeed all of the others on Walter’s list, and many more besides. Where Walter goes wrong, badly wrong, and where someone of Walter’s background would certainly know better than to say, is that Lee was co-creator. With artist Steve Ditko in the case of Spider-Man, and with artist Jack Kirby in the case of everyone else (even Daredevil, though that should more properly be co-credited to artist Bill Everett).

There are some – and Stan Lee is among them – who would dispute the artist’s part in creation. But this is comics: if writers could draw, they wouldn’t have artists drawing their stories, and the situation is further blurred by Lee developing the practice of giving artists a basic plot, more or less an outline, that they would draw, and which he would script, in accordance with the artwork produced.

This is not the place to argue which of Lee-Kirby or Lee-Ditko was the true creator. That’s too complex an argument. However, it is clear beyond all measure that Lee was not solely responsible for the creation of so many characters. There are many stories about the physical creation of stories at Marvel in the 60s that make plain just how often Lee would script a story that had been drawn without him ever having been involved in its creation before receiving the art.

The point is that Walter must know this, yet he has gone ahead and blown smoke up Stan Lee’s ass, in the way Marvel has done for decades, wiping out the contributions of creators such as Kirby and Ditko, when he should know better. If this came from a Guardian journalist without any interest in comics, it would still be ignorant, insulting and stupid, but from Walter it’s disgusting. Shame on him.

Stan Lee was the co-creator of all these characters. He deserves honouring for that. He has reaped the fruits of presenting himself as the sole creator for decades, whilst his colleagues have struggled and suffered. The Big Lie is perpetuated to this day.

The Prisoner: Other Media


A Graphic Novel

Though the canon of The Prisoner lies solely in its seventeen, much-repeated episodes, there were attempts, both contemporaneous and afterwards, to expand the concept into other media. I am not referring to the 2010 re-make by American TV, which I neither have nor will watch. But there were spin-off novels, in the tradition of the American market for popular shows, and several attempts to translate the series into comics.
The most prominent examples of trying to cash-in on the appeal of the series were the three novelisations written in America between 1968 and 1969: The Prisoner by Thomas M Disch, Who is Number Two? by David McDaniel and A  Day in the Life by Hank Stine (a mini-pseudonym for JeanMarie Stine).
I bought these in the Eighties when they were re-published in the UK through New English Library, though I’d read the first and third as library books in the late Seventies, whilst living in Nottingham. I sold them on again, years ago, and my memories of them are faint and patchy.
The three books are very different in style and approach, although the three authors wrote them to be continuous, with the succeeding novels having some vague reference to their predecessor, as if that adventure had been half-obliterated by brainwashing or drugs.
Disch was a major SF writer of repute, whose work centred upon helpless, passive individuals in situations they are unable to control, so not the obvious writer to continue the story of Number Six. His story was set after the end of the series and Number Six’s ultimate ‘escape’, and involved his recapture and return to the Village, in an oddly prosaic fashion.
However, he has been brainwashed to forget completely his previous incarceration and everything to do with the Village (he only discovers this in the form of videotapes – several years before these became available – consisting of the seventeen episodes of The Prisoner).
I remember little else of the story, save that the book as a whole was downbeat and generally dull. It completely lacked the surreality of the series, save for that in-joke, and the device of effectively restarting the whole thing, treating The Prisoner as something done and dusted, seems to me to be, in retrospect, a device to allow Disch to write as Disch, and not in McGoohan’s model.
McDaniel, in contrast, was a prolific writer of licensed properties – The Man from U.N.C.L.E and Star Trek being two of his regular berths – and a very good exponent of the field according to those who collect such books. His Who is Number Two? was chronologically second, but not released until last, for some unfathomable reason.
It’s the most conventional of the trio, and the one most anchored to the format of the series. McDaniel’s Number Two plots to undermine Number Six’s resistance, to gradually overcome his desire to escape by allowing him to have his /lotus in the Village, and by gradually providing supplies that enable the Prisoner to lavish attention on cleaning, re-tuning and eventually racing his beloved car on a self-built track near the beach.
The more Number Six has a stake in life in the Village, the less determined he will be to resist. But Number Six is very slowly constructing an escape plan, as his new, customised, fibreglass streamlining is actually intended as a boat hull, with the Lotus to motor an escape. Which fails,of course, but which enables Number Two to get away in Number Six’s stead.
Stine’s A Day in the Life, though the furthest removed from the series, was always the most interesting book. It’s a subjective, sollipsistic, impressionistic account of life in the Village as a mixture of good and bad times. The Prisoner ends up getting away to London, absolutely free and clear, only for the whole experience to be revealed as some kind of hallucination which, as he has expected all along, cracks in one go.
Incidentally, both McDaniel and Stine specifically identify Number Six as John Drake.
All three are worth reading as curios, and several different editions are available through Amazon and eBay, but they bear the usual relationship spin-offs have to a series: they are neither canon nor able to evoke more than an impression of the original.
Since then, there have been two other attempts to invoke The Prisoner in print. Roger Langley, founder of Six of One, wrote three Prisoner novellas in the Eighties, all privately printed and collected in a single Volume that can be bought in the Six of One shop in Portmeirion. I have read none of these, but the internet accounts are dismissive.
More recently, the LA-based Powys Media, who specialise in Space: 1999 novelisations, have branched out into Prisoner spin-offs as well, with two to date and a third due in 2013. Again, I have read none of these, but the on-line reviews available for The Prisoner’s Dilemma do praise its capture of the mood of the series and its sheer energy of invention.
The world of comics has not ignored The Prisoner either, with both Marvel and DC taking their turn at trying to adapt the series. Marvel licensed the show for adaptation in the mid-Seventies, at the behest of writer Steve Engelhart, who was in tune with its anti-establishment theme. Working with veteran artist Gil Kane, he produced an eighteen page adaptation of Arrival which, in a later interview, he described as following the episode faithfully, but adding thought bubbles.
The result, to the best of my knowledge, has never been seen, as Stan Lee decided it wasn’t visual enough, and gave the project to Jack Kirby instead. Kirby had already demonstrated his enthusiasm for the series in 1968, plotting and drawing a four part Fantastic Four story, set in a similarly mysterious Village in Latveria, operated by Doctor Doom.
With the standard page-count having been adjusted yet again, Kirby got seventeen pages now, and he duly wrote and pencilled an adaptation of the first half of Arrival. A total of six and a half pages were inker by his regular inker, Mike Royer, before the plug was again pulled, and Marvel concluded that they couldn’t turn The Prisoner into a Marvel Comic, for which I am grateful.
Nevertheless, many of Kirby’s pages have appeared, and can indeed be seen on-line: enough to make you wish he’d been given more latitude. He does a sterling job of interpreting McGoohan and Portmeirion into his style, whilst working within his own futuristic design, and the work intrigues.
It would be left to DC, a decade later, to actually succeed in getting a Prisoner comic into print, as a four part Prestige format series later collected as the Graphic Novel, Shattered Visage (the title being taken from the Shelley poem, Ozymandias).
The comic, co-written by Dean Motter and Mark Askwith and drawn by Motter, was fully approved, with both McGoohan and Leo McKern agreeing the use of their faces. It departed from the series in being set contemporaneously, twenty years on (and dismissing the series’ own finale as a drug-induced hallucination).
The story centre on a divorced couple named Drake, Thomas and Alice (the latter a nod to Lewis Carroll), who both come from a British Intelligence background. Alice, who has resigned, plans to sail the world in a computer-controlled yacht. Thomas, who is still in the system, rigs her boat to run aground and strand her on the island where stands the decaying ruin of the Village.
Twenty years on, the man who was Number Two, after a long prison sentence, has published an autobiography exposing the Village. Thomas has been responsible for vetting it and has blurred many details as to the programmes running at the time (as well as contemporary, real-life security issues). But what Thomas knows is that, when the Village was closed down, the man known as Number Six stayed on, renumbering himself Number One. And the former Number Two is on his way to the Village.
Hence, Alice is sent on ahead, whilst Thomas, working alongside a seemingly rogue American agent, follows later. By now, Alice has been named as Number Six by the ageing, heavily bearded familiar figure, who speaks mainly in shallow platitudes, and whose decision to stay when he could leave makes him look like a mere contrarian, as opposed to a principled man.
When Number Two turns up, intent on ‘freeing’ his erstwhile enemy from the Village, instead of the subtle psychological battle of Once upon a Time, we get a fist-fight. Though it is interesting to have the ex-Number Two claim that the Prisoner was defeated: unable to bend, he broke, shattered, and when he took a Number, any number, even Number One, he accepted the Village’s valuesand lost.
This pertinent point is, however, undercut when Thomas and his American pal arrive, find the underground control rooms that were the scene for Fall-Out and discover several more active nuclear weapons. These get set off, destroying the Village once and for all, and killing Thomas with it.
Alice and Number Six sail back to London, where he shaves off his beard and delivers one final platitude that undermines the precepts of the series: “Does the presence of Number Two require the existence of Number One?”, and assures her that his secrets are still completely safe and that the World would have been destroyed by now if they weren’t.
All this takes place against a background of sub-Le Carre intrigue, culminating in a new set of masters taking over British Intelligence. Thomas’s boss is ordered to resign, is gassed and take away mysteriously, implying that the cycle is beginning again.
What might have been moderately interesting in its own right, turns out to be confused, confusing and over-eager to stuff itself with unexplained hints, nods and winks, and it falls a long way short of living up to McGoohan’s original ideas, even if it was approved by him (“he didn’t hate it,” Motter said).
So, when all is said and done, we only have the seventeen true stories, and nothing else to lend itself to expanding our visions.

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.