A Spot of Adventure: The Bronze Age – Part 2


For 324 issues, Adventure Comics had been part of the Superman stable of titles. 200 issues of Superboy. 80 issues of the Legion of Super-Heroes. 44 issues of Supergirl. Now, editor Joe Orlando had two months to find a new star for DC’s fifth oldest title with any recourse to the Man of Steel’s offshoots. What would he do?
There would be ample time to think for, from issue 425, Adventure went bi-monthly, requiring only six issues per year, a sign that circulation was in decline, as it was elsewhere at DC, and in places you wouldn’t expect, like the Justice League of America. Orlando’s response was defiant: the new Adventure would become a mini-Showcase, home to all sorts of stories and ideas, ever changing, always springing surprises.
There were four stories in the first issue, no 425, only one of them continued, the others – one only two pages long – complete in themselves. They were miniature shockers, with twist endings and no comebacks. The exception, Captain Fear, was written by veteran Robert Kanigher and drawn by newcomer Akex Nino, first and most abstract of the wave of Filipino artists about to flood DC’s pages because they were insanely cheap, as well as stylish, quick and talented. Captain Fear was a native indian pirate Captain, where you could make images out.
The Vigilante was added in issue 426, along with The Adventurers Club, an anthology series drawn by the already brilliant Jim Aparo, who was already working for Orlando on The Phantom Stranger.

And then everyone was ditched for a three-issue run by the mysterious Black Orchid, created by Sheldon Mayer and Tony De Zuniga, backed up by Dr Thirteen, the Ghost Breaker, also drawn by De Zuniga. The Doc only stayed one issue, however, before being re-replaced by Captain Fear, now being written by Steve Skeates, who was in turn replaced by The Adventurer’s Club in issue 430.
As for the Black Orchid, the character was attractively drawn but the stories were functionally identical. A bad man is given the opportunity to repay his thefts by the Black Orchid, who turns out to be disguised as someone close to him. She can fly, is bulletproof and no-one believes it when they see her. Meanwhile, she has no name, no identity and no personality, just an enigma. Three issues were enough, and she was replaced by Adventure‘s most notorious ten issue run of all time.

This run, in issues 331-340, came about by the coincidence of three things: young writer Michael Fleisher, researching a projected six-volume History of Comic Books of which only two appeared, proposing a revival of the Golden Age character, The Spectre, just after Joe Orlando had been robbed in a street-mugging in front of his wife. Orlando, angry and resentful of his humiliation, was ready to approve a version of the character that went back to his roots as a vengeful ghost, bringing retribution to evil, and to take advantage of the recent relaxation of the Comics Code to permit a greater licence in what could be depicted..
I loved it at the time. The run was bloodthirsty, it’s most obvious single flaw masked in my eyes by superb, dramatic, atmospheric art from Jim Aparo. The most obvious flaw was that the stories were basically identical: unrelievedly evil characters with no personality or even a second note, commit brutal crimes: the Spectre kills them in even more brutal and inventive ways. That’s all.
I was just feeling my way back into comics again after a three year hiatus, still overawed by the changes there had been during my absence, stunned by artwork from the likes of Aparo. But for him, I wouldn’t have lasted anything like as long: the lack of variation would have turned me off. A few years later, a higher sense of morality would have had me more repelled than thrilled by Aparo’s depiction of death-by-supernatural-circumstance. Yes, you could argue that the Spectre’s vengeance bore no resemblance to ‘ordinary’ killing, and Fleisher reacted to criticism by arguing that his Spectre wasn’t doing anything the original hadn’t, and he’d been written by Jerry Seigel.
Leaving aside the comprehensive difference between Bernard Bailey’s art and Jim Aparo’s, I somehow doubt this: as early as the fourth episode, The Spectre animates an axe to chop Jim Corrigan’s would-be girl-friend Gwen Sterling into eight separate pieces in a single panel, just because she, under mind-control, has tried to kill him. We the audience know this ‘Gwen’ is an animated mannequin but the Spectre doesn’t. Not until after ‘Gwen’ is being labelled Parts 1 to 8.
The run was popular but also highly vilified for its violence. There’s no definitive explanation for its cancellation with issue 440, but piecing things together from various sources, the probable explanation is that Infantino, coming under intense criticism at conventions and fan-events, took the opportunity of the first small downfall in sales to kill the feature, so abruptly that three bought and paid for scripts were never drawn, just written off, not to appear for thirteen years.
The Spectre period featured several different back-ups, including the final Captain Feat two-parter, but the most significant was a loose serial starring Aquaman, back in Adventure after a gap of 150-odd issues, with art from the up-and-coming Mike Grell, an artist who gathered raves everywhere he went but always looks stiff and unnatural to me. More thrilling was an unused Seven Soldiers of Justice story from the Forties, newly-drawn and serialised in issue 438-443.
The Seven Soldiers serial may have outlived the Spectre but it was Aquaman who replaced him, for a dozen issues, a rather better, or at least more varied use of Aparo’s art, allied to scripting by another former fan easing his way into the industry, one Paul Levitz.

It goes without saying that Aquaman in this run was better by far than the repetitious, meaningless stories of the Fifties. The opening eight issues built up as a serial that saw Aquaman deposed as King of Atlantis, at first by the mysterious Karshon, supporting the King of the Sea’s regular enemies of his Sixties series, but ultimately by his trusted Counsellor Vulko. It was well-made but I couldn’t really get into it, not then or now.
In the wider context, the arrival of Jeanette Kahn to replace Carmine Infantino as Publisher saw Joe Orlando promoted to Managing Editor and Paul Levitz become ‘Story Editor’ on Adventure, at the age of 20. Meanwhile, the three-issue back-ups moved on from The Creeper to the Martian Manhunter, his first appearance in years and a dumb one as he just assumes his murdered fellow Martian has been killed by a Justice League member, on the grounds that it was obvious. And Denny O’Neill wrote this.
Worse still, this ‘three-parter’ turned out to have four parts, the last being published in a completely different title, World’s Finest.
And Aquaman’s run ended abruptly in issue 452 with news that his own title was being revived and that he would transfer back there. Unfortunately, this came one issue too late for Adventure to escape the stigma of hosting one of DC’s most hateful and sickening stories. Aquaman’s ongoing battle with Black Manta reaches an end that few have ever condoned, as his son, Arthur Jr., Aquababy, held hostage by the villain, was killed, drowning in air.
Yes, that’s right, a little kid, not more than two years old, murdered. Where’s the Spectre when you want him? That Black Manta was allowed to live and remain a viable character to this day is an obscenity. David Michelinie wrote this, Jim Aparo drew it and Paul Levitz took editorial responsibility.
So, guess who got wheeled out to lead Adventure for the next phase? Why, it was Superboy!
It was the same story as Aquaman:better than the Fifties but still not good. Superboy got a solo because the Legion were pushing him out of his title, a familiar pattern, but he was saddled with Bob Rozakis and John Calnan as his creators, a combination that spelt commonplace. Aqualad got his first solo series as the back-up but that was no better, going around threatening to beat up pacifists to discover the secret of his past.
The cycle was supposed to be three 11-pagers plus back-up, and one novel-length story, but this was comic book’s nadir, when novel-length meant only 17 pages in a comic, and nobody settled into writing or drawing the series. But Superboy’s tenure only lasted five issues this time before he was moved over to Superman Family. Adventure was going down the pan. It had no regular lead feature, and the name, Adventure had simply outlived its recognition factor after forty-plus years, lacking definition for its audience, who looked for characters first.
This latest wholesale change reflected the decision to add Adventure to DC’s line of Dollar Comics, 68 page comics costing $1, but featuring all-original material. The initial line-up, in issue 459, featured The Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Deadman, the Elongated Man and The New Gods, not to mention a very long editorial from Levitz about the values and virtues of the new comic, restoring the glories of anthology comics.
From this distance, the editorial reeks of desperation, as well it might since the infamous DC Explosion/Implosion was right in the headlights. The New Gods feature was already a foretaste of what was coming: this was nothing to do with Jack Kirby but instead was the completion of Return of the New Gods, an extension series written by Gerry Conway that, despite a few good lines here or there, is justly forgotten now.
Most interesting was the information that when this feature concluded, after two final chapters, it would be replaced by The Man from Neverwhere. But Adventure was about to be buffeted once more by the winds of change.
The intention was to have Flash, GL, Wonder Woman and Deadman as regulars, with shifting back-ups, but by the second issue, Green Lantern was on his way out, displaced by none other than Aquaman (again) because his solo title had been cancelled (again). The New Gods ended with Conway killing off Darkseid, but only for the first time: it would become something of a habit with him.
So to The Man from Neverwhere. But we all know that never appeared. Because the DC Implosion saw half the DC line cancelled in an afternoon, among them the revived All-Star Comics. It had been due to feature the Death of (the Earth-2) Batman in its next issue so, just like Return of the New Gods, Adventure became a home to finish things off.
Levitz moved on as editor, to the Batman titles, as he probably had to do, being the Justice Society writer, and was replaced by Ross Andru, who would soon be shaking up The Flash’s life in his title. This coincided with the final loss of Jim Aparo, after so many issues and features, the last of these being Deadman, which continued under Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.
One thing that immediately becomes obvious in reading this phase is a story-telling technique prevalent in 1979 but thankfully long abandoned. This is an attempt to generate immediacy and action by starting in the middle, in a desperate situation, sometimes only on the splash page, sometimes covering a page or two, before rewinding to the beginning to see how the whole thing was set up. This achronology is clumsy and incredibly irritating to read forty years on.
But the Dollar Comic idea didn’t last. None of DC’s attempts to sell bigger comics for more money ever lasted and with issue 466 it was done again. The Justice Society left on a high, the explanation for their retirement during the Fifties tied into McCarthyism, and they were going to be leaving anyway. But there was not a word of warning anywhere in the title of what would happen in issue 467.

Yes, everybody was out. Adventure was restored to its bog-standard 32 page size, and to monthly status at the same time, with Len Wein installed as editor and a brand new line-up of a revived Plastic Man, complete with Woozy Winks, demonstrating yet again just how hard it was to capture Jack Cole’s lightning in a bottle, and a brand-new Starman series, featuring a brand—new Starman, by Levitz and the legendary Steve Ditko.
The latter intrigued me. I never read it at the time, though I’m familiar with this version, Prince Gavyn, from the superb James Robinson Starman series around the turn of the century, so it was nice to see the building blocks being built.
Starman was actually quite decent space opera that I would probably have enjoyed a lot in 1979/80, whilst the Plastic Man revival did its best but, lacking the light touch of Plas’s creator, got bogged down in excess silliness rather quickly.
Still, DC had not given up on Jeanette Kahn’s dream of bigger, better comics, and with issue 475, Adventurer extended its borders (and price) again, jumping to 50 cents and junking eight advertising pages to bring the creative content up to 25 again. That required a third character and who do you think it was? Tall, blond, favours orange scales? Yes, it was bloody Aquaman again.
But only for three issues. Without warning, issue 478 had every series scattering to the horizon for their continuations, Aquaman back to World’s Finest, Plastic Man to Super-Friends, Starman to ‘a conclusion – sometime’. And not a word of explanation in the lettercol or elsewhere.
By now, it must be long obvious that Adventure was a dying title, struggling and gasping and desperate. There wasn’t even a lettercol in issue 479, which was taken over by Dial ‘H’ for Hero for the remainder of the series’ life, nor credits. The series was being written by Marv Wolfman and very clearly being drawn by Carmine Infantino.

Back in the Sixties, I vaguely remember reading one of the original Dial ‘H’ for Hero stories starring Robbie Reed, in which the idea was that if Robbie dialled letters that were equivalent to H-E-R-O on a mysterious telephone dial (no telephone attached) he would turn into new superheroes for an hour at a time.
The revival had two High School teenagers, Chris King and Vicki Grant, who discover two dials, one as a wristwatch, the other a necklace, and also turn into superheroes. Lots of superheroes. Streams of one-note superheroes with all the developmental space of a puddle. This is because practically ever character has been suggested by a reader in their teens (except the Silver Fog, created by Harlan Ellison, aged 46). In short, it’s a wildly jarring, screaming mish-mash of stock Infantino shots, and my how stylistically angular he’d got, and it’s horrendous to read. Oh, and just in case anyone comes up with a good character, DC owns them all. Just in case.
The sheer vapidity of the comic – three seven page stories per issue, is this Mort Weisinger making a comeback? No, it’s Jack C Harris as editor, which explains a lot – was DC’s attempt to grab a younger audience at the very time it’s older audience was taking hold of the industry, via the Direct Market. It was a killer. Adventure lost its last, tenuous grip on its audience, throwing away one that had shown some loyalty in pursuit of another that it hoped to create out of nowhere.
With issue 490, cover-dated February 1982, Adventure Comics died quietly, in its forty-eighth year, just ten issues short of its 500th publication. Apart from a mention of where Dial ‘H’ for Hero could next be found, there was no announcement of the cancellation. By turning it into a digest-sized publication, mostly reprint, the title was got to 500 eventually. There have been revivals since, but one of the oldest titles in the business had run out of reinventions, doomed by its failure to produce a character it could be associated with who could save its life.
Action could live off Superman and Detective off Batman. But Adventure could only ever eat its own tail: if it produced a charismatic, exciting, popular lead character, it would lose its star to a solo title in its own name. Ultimately, it was doomed. And it went.

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.

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.

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.

Marvel Comics – the Untold Story, by Sean Howe


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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.