Product Added : February 16th, 2013
Category : Books
"This Best Selling Marvel Comics: The Untold Story Tends to SELL OUT VERY FAST! If this is a MUST HAVE product, be sure to Order Now to avoid disappointment!"
An unvarnished, unauthorized, behind-the-scenes account of one of the most dominant pop cultural forces in contemporary America.
Operating out of a tiny office on Madison Avenue in the early 1960s, a struggling company called Marvel Comics presented a cast of brightly costumed characters distinguished by smart banter and compellingly human flaws. Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, the Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, Daredevil—these superheroes quickly won children's hearts and sparked the imaginations of pop artists, public intellectuals, and campus radicals. Over the course of a half century, Marvel's epic universe would become the most elaborate fictional narrative in history and serve as a modern American mythology for millions of readers.
Throughout this decades-long journey to becoming a multibillion-dollar enterprise, Marvel's identity has continually shifted, careening between scrappy underdog and corporate behemoth. As the company has weathered Wall Street machinations, Hollywood failures, and the collapse of the comic book market, its characters have been passed along among generations of editors, artists, and writers—also known as the celebrated Marvel "Bullpen." Entrusted to carry on tradition, Marvel's contributors—impoverished child prodigies, hallucinating peaceniks, and mercenary careerists among them—struggled with commercial mandates, a fickle audience, and, over matters of credit and control, one another.
For the first time, Marvel Comics reveals the outsized personalities behind the scenes, including Martin Goodman, the self-made publisher who forayed into comics after a get-rich-quick tip in 1939; Stan Lee, the energetic editor who would shepherd the company through thick and thin for decades; and Jack Kirby, the World War II veteran who'd co-created Captain America in 1940 and, twenty years later, developed with Lee the bulk of the company's marquee characters in a three-year frenzy of creativity that would be the grounds for future legal battles and endless debates.
Drawing on more than one hundred original interviews with Marvel insiders then and now, Marvel Comics is a story of fertile imaginations, lifelong friendships, action-packed fistfights, reformed criminals, unlikely alliances, and third-act betrayals—a narrative of one of the most extraordinary, beloved, and beleaguered pop cultural entities in America's history.
By 1971, there was clearly no future in working for Marvel Comics. Jack Kirby had jumped ship for DC, sales were declining and Marvel’s new owners, a New Jersey outfit called Perfect Film & Chemical, had installed a CEO who was making life so difficult for management that even Stan Lee was looking for the nearest exit. It was part of the boom and bust cycle that had plagued the comics industry (and Timely/Atlas/Marvel in particular) since the late 1940s, but when Marvel came back from its latest downturn — as it would keep coming back from the brink of a series of disasters to come — it was as a more resilient and ambitious company than ever.
Sean Howe’s tale of the second-rate comics company that turned itself into the gold standard of superhero geekdom is a fascinating business book about the rising value of intellectual property in the late 20th/early 21st centuries, and a sweeping narrative history of the people and the work environment behind Marvel’s best-remembered comics. Howe is enough of a fanboy to write knowledgeably about the great story arcs of past decades: the coming of Galactus, the Kree/Skrull War, the Dark Phoenix saga, the deaths of Elektra and Gwen Stacy. His critical eye is acute, as in his wonderful observation that “to a dedicated readership of gearheads, pot smokers, and art students, [Steranko's] ‘Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ was the apex of an art form.”
A savvy journalist, Howe identifies the crux of Marvel’s early history as the Stan Lee – Jack Kirby partnership, a dynamic machine built on fault lines of ego. They co-created most of the company’s iconic characters, changed the way comics were drawn and written, and wound up feuding in public until Kirby’s death in 1994. Money and story credits had a lot to do with the problem, but it seems also to have come down to bruised egos on both sides.
Howe’s five-decade history of creative, editorial, and marketing imbroglios practically screams a moral at us: relatively few artists are good businessmen. In the divide between labor, management, and owners, those who remained incorrigibly labor, like Kirby (or Chris Claremont), could never win. Those who became management, or free agents, like Neal Adams, Jim Steranko, Frank Miller, Todd McFarlane, and Jim Lee, more often than not acquired the bargaining power to get what they wanted.
The history of Marvel reads like a series of epic story arcs. There’s the Big Bang of the ‘sixties; the rudderless ‘seventies; the Jim Shooter era, with an editor-in-chief seemingly dedicated to sabotaging Marvel’s entire line of books; the boom and bust years of the early to mid ‘nineties, in which the Heroes World distribution debacle and the mass defection of artists from Marvel to Image (who, once there, were incapable of releasing their books on time) helped to put thousands of comic shops out of business, just as Marvel, the former industry leader, declared bankruptcy. The book ends with Disney’s acquisition of the company in a four billion dollar deal that validates an edict Stan Lee had handed down decades earlier: fans don’t want change, but the illusion of change. Not bad for a faltering line of bug-eyed monster comics and Archie knock-offs, where a new type of creative team was about to give their readers what they hadn’t known they’d wanted all along.
First, let me say that my title doesn’t mean the hobby isn’t for adults. I wrote that in perspective to my own collecting (I’m 33 now) that started when i was 12. That childhood “innocence” resonated throughout this whole book for me.
This is a very dark book. Not dark as in scary, or dangerous, per se; dark as shady. The comic world behind the scenes was a very cut throat and competitive world. Marvel, from its inception, was about the business and Howe hits on this point early and often. As readers we are led from the beginnings of Timely through the superhero renaissance of the Silver Age and into the modern era, never letting go of the fact that the bottom line is the motivating factor. There is no more fantasy.
Another key thread that weaves its way in and out of the narrative, though never too far out of reach, is Stan Lee’s idea of “illusion of change”. It hits hard, but many of the people who read this book will be long time collectors, lovers of the medium, and will probably understand this wether they know it or not. I still find it, in an artistic sense, to be shallow and really throw an ugly light on the medium.
You’ll get a very even, outside, perspective of the Lee/Kirby/Ditko arguments which have been fought over the years, and though I do ultimately believe Stan took and was rewarded for, way more credit than he deserved, this book adds a bit of depth to the discussion. None of those guys were entirely saints.
There is a couple of bright spots to the book that shine particularly bright.
Reading about the Bronze Age and the expression of guys like Starlin, Englehart, Gerber, and Steranko, really provide inspiration and evidence that there are creators out there who truly love the work they do. I also got this impression when he finally hits the Quesada era at the end. Say what you will of Quesada’s methods and ideas, and though he did adhere greatly to the bottom line, his love of comics also drove him to (in my opinion) bring the Marvel Universe out of a completely lackluster 90s.
Another piece of light Howe focuses on is the Marvels series from Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross. As a teen that was probably the first work to truly blow my mind and now, older, reading it again, really helps to appreciate the S.A. books I’ve been able to comb back through over the years. In five issues those two truly were able to capture the Marvel Age.
In the end; I think this is a book that every comic fan should read. Especially relevant in the times of the New 52 and Marvel Now, the “illusion of change” line hangs heavy. Howe keeps things short but important so reads really well if you’re in the mood to sit down and crush a hundred pages a pop.
This book is a history of Marvel Comics, which is to say that it is an institutional history and not the history of the comics themselves. It is less worried worth a critical look at the work, the art form, or the philosophy of comics, and is really a story of the business of comics, and the history of the company in question and its employees. In focusing on Marvel, Sean Howe is able to illuminate wider trends and movements in the industry, using one of the “Big Two” to do so.
This is not to imply it is boring; quite the contrary, this was a fun read for me. Even better than its insightful narrative is the author’s willingness to cut through the company line, the public stories, the versions offered from official sources and legends to find out what really and truly went on. Stan Lee is still the merry, happy man at the top, but in this book is a much more nuanced character; he perpetually longs to escape the art form that he is synonymous with, and his changing relationship with the company is a common focal point for the book’s wider story. Jack Kirby remains the persecuted genius, but Howe is careful to probe at the edges of the image, analyzing how Kirby’s own approach and feelings about his characters changed over the years. Again and again Howe dissects the gossip, shop talk, and official news to find the more complicated story below it all. No writer comes off as persistently good or consistently right, but all the characters are complex and flawed – which actually serves to humanize the whole history and make you look differently at your favorite funny books.
Running throughout the book are consistent themes, themes which might be a diatribe from the blog of a disgruntled comic fan if Howe was not so eloquent and well-versed in the sources, and if his prose were not as consistently entertaining. One theme is the problems of management. Repeatedly, businessmen and corporate raiders disinterested in the form and the field came into Marvel, trying to leverage it into great profitability and make a killing in a new way with comics, all the while denigrating the books and dismissing them. An endless parade of magazine moguls, entertainment lawyers and venture capitalists manage to foul up the industry at every opportunity, yet it persists on the strength of those devoted to it. A second theme is the boom and bust cycle of the business, which almost reads like a perpetual ant and the grasshopper morality tale. People get fired, laid off, or pushed out in bust periods, and then new people rush back in for the boom and don’t prepare for the inevitable bust. A third theme is the persistence of comics; born in an age of pulps and dime novels, this form somehow manages to adapt, change and move with the items to now coexist with video games and interactive media. As I said above, it is not a history of the characters or books themselves, but you can feel the power of the character radiate off the page simply because they manage to keep so many fans. Yet another recurring theme is the power of intellectual property rights, which chain so many men and women to the success or failure of this enterprise, far after their day in the sun has passed.
I think the theme that I came away most convinced of, perhaps erroneously, was that comic creators as a group were both dysfunctional and key to the form’s success. The best parts of Howe’s book borders on gossipy tales of office melodrama, but with an air of importance and seriousness key to the overall structure of the book and coupled with a keen exploration of the key tensions. Namely, many of these artists felt so strongly about their form, their characters, and their work that it became a struggle born of love and frustration. Reading of the conflicts between Shooter and his staff, Claremont and Byrne, and others often reads like children arguing over who loves their mother more. These people are so intimately tied up in the world they have created and the jobs they do that you can’t help but admire them. The righteous anger of Steve Gerber and quiet defiance of Roy Thomas and the doomed nobility of Mark Gruenwald all leap off the page, men who, quite frankly, give a damn about these comics and what they mean. They cared so deeply that they would develop rivalries and alliances, cut each other’s throats and make realpolitik moves – all in the name of the characters and world they care about. A more cynical reader may see this as base workplace Machiavellianism, but the author’s depiction of the authors turns them into a group of tortured artists and genuinely invested caretakers competing and cooperating in turn, all bound up in what is, in truth, a rather strange enterprise. As a comic fan, I could not help but feel kinship with the writers, editors and artists who get engaged in furious quarrels over imaginary people, as I often have. But this is where one almost gains a feeling of hamartia, that the fatal flaw of these creators is their deep entwinement with the characters, the form, the imaginary world, the field, the industry, which leads to the aforementioned problems in earlier themes and the disastrous consequences for many of them. Simultaneously, their success is both the result of this flaw and a source of legitimization; their passion and involvement produces work that produces sales and critical response, meaning that the same ambitions and excitement that make their professional lives so melodramatic are also key to the success and power of the form.
My own strong feelings stirred up by this book would suggest I should award it five stars, but it has two significant drawbacks that restrict me from bestowing such a rating. One issue is that the first chapter, covering the creation of the company, is a little light on the drama and excitement of later chapters and is mostly a re-hash of previous histories, offering little in the way of new insights, at least for a long time comic fan such as myself. Similarly, the book begins to seriously thin into the early 2000s, and important developments that would be important in framing the long term story of certain creators is missing. For example, Frank Miller ends up as a firebrand and critical success in the book, which largely overlooks his transformation in the last 10 or so years into what some would call self-parody, a descent into jingoism and old forms that has left many fans cold. Very important industry developments that have ramifications for Marvel seem to be lost because of this truncated recent period as well; the discussion of Marvel Knights and the rise of Quesada leaves out the pressures exerted by DC’s critically successful Vertigo imprint as a motivating factor. Because it only hints at the success of Bendis, Brubaker, et al, it misses out on an important renaissance of sorts occurring now in the industry, one driven by people who have to make their reputations in the creator owned world before making it to the big leagues. Overall, the rehashed early period and the truncated post-90s bust period seem to pale in comparison to the lively discussion of especially the 70s and 80s. The book feels like it begins to tail off as it approaches the 2000s, which is a problem.
My second issue with this book is that it occasionally smooths over important points. For example, Rob Liefeld’s loss of Captain America during the Heroes Reborn fiasco is mostly indicated to be a result of inside politics at Image and deadline problems, overlooking the critical drubbing it took and Liefeld’s generally poor work on the titles. The rivalry with DC is essentially a flat, distant thing, a source for jobs when people leave and a competitor, but never an influence. Wizard magazine is brough up as a player, but its incredibly power and influence in the market is only hinted at, and its interplay with Marvel seems limited. The power of the internet is gestured at, but the rise of instant news sites and forums as arenas of opinion formation and comics discourse never seems to come alive. This is not by any means frequent; it is a typically accurate book that pulls no punches with its subjects.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed this book. I do not think it is a book for a beginner to the world of comics, however. If you are a former fan, a lapsed fan, or a current fan you will find it very, very entertaining, especially if you know the big names of yesteryear and want to see the conflicts you always heard rumors of brought to life. But it does presume a sort of understanding of the prevailing narrative that Marvel sells of itself and the traditional story. Watching a cable program on the history of comics first might be a good way to see how effectively this book undermines some the myths we hold about the Marvel world. I had just finished reading Grant Morrison’s Supergods before this book, and I think it is a good companion piece. Morrison focuses on the art and the critical side of comics, while this focuses on the business and institutions, and together provide a very nice insight into the last 50 years of comics.
Colin Smith summed it up best (in a review on sequart.org): “…a substantial, equitable and thoroughly enjoyable if rather depressing read.” I have been reading comics for over 45 years, and – though no longer a “fanboy” (or even a regular reader) – still love the medium and have a tender spot in my heart for 60′s Marvel. This book does an excellent job of laying out how this universe was created, with a few talented people taking advantage of a low-stakes publishing venture to create something truly unique – and how their creation was immediately taken over by the corporate world (in its various, sometimes truly bizarre forms), to be squeezed dry by one corporate raider after another.
The tale of artists and writers used and then discarded and of Art shackled by accountants IS rather depressing, but it also made me appreciate all the more those occasional masterpieces that this machine did manage to produce over the years. Overall – 5 stars, for a very thoroughly-researched, clearly and evenly-told account of a fascinating story. I was not bothered by the lack of any art; this is NOT the tale of comics art, and this decision felt right to me. My one complaint would be the rushed account of the last decade – though I am hoping the reason for this is Howe leaving material for the next book… I, for one, will be pre-ordering!
As a comics aficionado well versed on the early history of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, I didn’t find anything new in the first 100 pages that deal with Marvel between 1940 and 1970. Of course it has to difficult to divine much that hasn’t already been written on that era. Most of the people who created the early Marvels have already said what they have to say in interviews, fanzines and their own books. Still, it makes for a good general history for the uninitiated. But beginning with the 1970s the book takes off in detail into realms rarely delved into with such insight and research. The last 300 pages tackle the history of Marvel from 1970 to 2012 dealing with both the content of the comics and the people who created the books and ran the company. Appropriately heroes and villains abound both in the comics and the boardroom. Highly entertaining.
I have to make a confession upfront: I never liked superhero comics, and I still really don’t. Some might say that I developed my aversion to them because my father was (and still is) a devoted fan, but my attraction to guys like Carl Barks, John Stanley, Walt Kelly, and Sheldon Mayer just seemed a far more natural fit for my budding tastes, and they still do. In the last few years, though, I’ve relented, and now have utmost appreciation for the works of Jack Kirby and Jack Cole in particular. Truth be told, the ratio of gold to crap in funnybooks is about the same as superheroes (though on very different scales).
Having said that, Sean Howe’s book absolutely wowed me, and given the subject is largely about books I have zero interest in, that’s saying something. It’s the story of a company that took itself way too seriously, whose stories and characters became so convoluted and involved that the only way to save themselves was to make their universe even further convoluted. The backstabbing of its most important creators perfectly illustrates the grim fact that anyone in any business is expendable. The reasons for why Marvel, who have just as captivating a cast of characters as DC, couldn’t get any feature films off the ground until fairly recently are rife in typical Hollywood drama (is there any other kind?). The tale of the development of Stan Lee, from an eager kid whose dialogue was always sort of lackluster but was likable and talented enough to the resigned corporate mascot of today, is more engrossing than any other account I’ve read on the subject.
The biggest flaw is that the other creators (save Stan Lee) get far too little attention at the expense of the suits and editors. The most colorful pages are those discussing Jack Kirby’s work and his personal struggles with the company. Fewer people in American pop culture are as compelling figures as Kirby, and while going on too many tangents about him might prove detrimental to the general history of Marvel, there was still no other artist the company was as indebted to as Kirby. Glimmers of adolescent egomaniacs (Frank Miller, Todd McFarlane) are also extremely entertaining, and I would have preferred more coverage of them than the constant refrains of the internal struggles at the top of the company.
Anyone with even a passing interest in the entertainment world should pick up this highly charged tome. Dare I say it, it’s more engaging than any comic.
Yep, I was a publisher of Marvel Comics, and you will find me mentioned here in Sean Howe’s new book. What’s more, he gets it mostly right. From Martin Goodman’s Timely Comics … to Stan Lee’s marvelous heyday … to when I ran Marvel during the so-called Comics War … to its resurgence with blockbuster movies … to its purchase by Disney, the story’s here. This book should be on every fanboy’s reading list. And if you want more insider anecdotes, check out my two books “A Complete History of American Comic Books” and “Comic Books: How the Industry Works,” both available on Amazon.
As a longtime comics fan with an interest in comics history, I found this book a good read, worth the purchasing and reading, but not the last word on the subject. The strongest element is the coverage of Marvel history from the 1970′s through the 90′s. The accounting of the pre-Fantastic Four period 1939 through 1961 is relatively thin, perhaps because of the lack of primary sources still around, and/or because most of the material produced by Timely/Atlas/Marvel during the early period was not of much current fan interest (except for a hard core of collector aficionados). During that first couple of decades, the policy of publisher Martin Goodman was to see what was selling for other comics publishers and jump on the bandwagon– first superheroes, then horror, crime, romance, teen humor, etc.– with competently produced but often uninspired knockoffs. Indeed, “Fantastic Four” itself was another knockoff, a jump back onto the superhero bandwagon started by DC, except that Stan Lee (by his own admission pretty much a hack writer up until then) and Jack Kirby decided to try doing superheroes in a different way.
The story of Marvel’s “Silver Age” glory days from FF #1 through about 1971 is a many-times-told tale. It is told here competently but with a bit of a “you had to be there” feel… if you didn’t already know what the early stories of the FF, Spider-Man and the rest were like, and how they were different from what DC and other publishers were producing at the time, you might not get a clear idea from this book. And even though this is not a history of DC comics, the book might have gained from looking further at how the rise of Marvel was a response to a previous resurgence at DC, and how Marvel in turn influenced– and was influenced by– DC. (By the 1970′s and beyond, writers, artists and editors were all jumping back and forth between the two companies, and DC’s handling of its classic characters was thoroughly “Marvelized”..which I’m not saying was a bad thing.)
As I said, the freshest information in the book for me was the look at behind-the-scenes goings-on at Marvel during the 1970′s, when the wave of fans turned creators that started with Roy Thomas took over the store… a development that definitely had its up and down sides. Again, here, the author is maybe a bit thin of descriptions of the actual comics being produced and their significance.
A comment of my own not so much about the book as some previous reviews… as a reader of the comics, I’ll defend Stan Lee from charges that he was a mere hack stealing credit from Kirby, Ditko and others. Looking at the comics produced during those few years of the 60′s– and comparing them to the comics produced by Kirby and Ditko before and after that period, on their own or with other collaborators– it seems clear to me that for a while there was a genuine synergy between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and between Lee and Ditko, enabling them to produce work that was “more than the sum of its parts”.
From the standpoint of a reader, again, I’ll make somewhat of a defense of the infamous Jim Shooter. He may not have been a fun guy to work for, but I’ve always liked Shooter’s own writing, and from my reader’s standpoint, when Shooter became Marvel editor-in-chief, the effect, at least at first, was to “get the trains running on time” without snuffing out creativity. The Marvel Comics produced under Shooter’s early editorship, I thought at the time and still do, were part of a kind of “Third Golden Age” of the late 70′s through mid ’80′s… along with comics produced by DC and by the burgeoning independent publishers of the time. (I’d like to see a good overall history concentrating on this period of the 1980′s.)