Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe


In recent years, comics history as a discipline has become quite popular. Back in the 1970s, when my older brother occasionally drove me to Bob Sidebottom’s Comic Collector Shop on San Fernando Street in San Jose, the only widely available explorations were Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes, Steranko’s two-volume History of Comics, and Michael Fleisher’s Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes compiled over three tomes that covered Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman respectively. Fans could also gather information from any number of fanzines, journals, and the grapevines operating at conventions. How times have changed.

Now a legion of authors has joined the discussion. Gerard Jones, who in the 1980s penned The Comic Book Heroes: The First History of Modern Comic Books from the Silver Age to the Present, has outlined the Golden Age in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book. David Hajdu expounds on the dark days during the 1950s when senate hearings nearly ruined comics forever in The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America. Of course, Grant Morrison has something to say with his Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human. Finally, I’m fond of The Comic Book History of Comics by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey. This list represents just a drop in the deluge, as universities have started offering courses dedicated to comics and graphic novels, and various academic presses have begun producing series dedicated to comic artists and criticism.

So, given the above, how can Sean Howe claim that his historical survey of Marvel Comics represents the “untold story?” Taken individually, none of the anecdotes he relates will strike experienced fans as new. They’ve heard these told time and again in various settings and formats. Stan Lee has lectured on the “Marvel method” at public appearances, in documentaries, in magazines and newspapers, in his autobiography, and in the introductory essays he wrote for anthologies such as Origins of Marvel Comics. And while I’m in the mood for cataloging titles, how about those efforts chronicling events from specific eras in the saga of Marvel, such as Comic Wars: Marvel’s Battle for Survival by Dan Raviv and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby: The Wonder Years by Mark Alexander? Don’t start with these, however. Begin with Howe, because he gives us the untold story — honest. Trust me on this.

The untold story begins in 1939, when publisher Martin Goodman released the first issue of Marvel Comics through one of his imprints, Timely. The story ends . . . well, we don’t know when the end will happen, but Howe’s narrative ends with the Marvel of today, the subsidiary of Disney currently releasing hit after hit into movie houses in front of which fans like me line up like crack addicts after their pusher. The untold story, then, is the whole story, organized in such a way that allows readers to appreciate how the Marvel phenomenon has developed through time, through alternating editorial styles, through the aftermath of Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and later corporate finagling, and through the infighting that stemmed from copyright disputes and clashes in creative outlooks. In all, Howe interviewed more than 150 individuals who worked for Marvel or one of its parent companies, finally uniting all this information for the first time into a singular source that recounts the evolution of Marvel without any photographs, reproductions of comic art, or miscellaneous illustrations. The Marvel Comics: The Untold Story page on Facebook features the visuals missing from the book, so click “like” to view the collection there.

While not strictly the focus of his study, Howe wisely joins the disparate portions of his book within a framework based on a balanced consideration of the copyright issues that have plagued not only Marvel but the entire comics industry. Simon, Kirby, Ditko, and others certainly suffered from unfair work-for-hire practices, while Jim Lee, Todd MacFarlane, and especially Rob Liefeld represented the excesses of the creator-owned side of the spectrum. Howe avoids any hero worship in describing Stan Lee’s role in disputes with Kirby and Ditko as well. The Shooter years, the rise of the new X-Men, the bankruptcy battle in the 1990s, the periods of layoffs, all the ups and downs receive careful analysis. Howe even discusses the editorial processes behind the deaths of Gwen Stacy, Captain Marvel, and Jean Grey. What a great starting place for those who maybe have seen the films and thus have become curious about Marvel Comics in terms of history and business.

And what a great nucleus of joy for seasoned fans. I found myself drowning in nostalgia for the late 1960s through the 1970s when Jim Steranko, Frank Brunner, Steve Gerber, Steve Englehart, Gary Friedrich, Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan, and Jim Starlin all worked and played together, releasing unto the world boundary-shattering comics that forever changed not only the industry but the lives of fans everywhere. I, for example, happily endured ridicule for naming a new cat after my favorite character, Adam Warlock, especially the iteration so wonderfully served up by Jim Starlin. My sister to this day expresses relief, since during said christening I was wearing my Howard the Duck T-Shirt and easily could have gone in that direction.

Out there somewhere a dedicated fan reading the first chapter of this book will stand up and shout, “Damn you, Howe! The Golden Age Human Torch’s last name has two m’s in it!” I remain far more forgiving toward tiny errors, even if Howe never so much as mentions the Son of Satan. Hopefully, I’ve said enough to convince all to read this book, but just in case, I’ll let Chuck Klosterman, have the last word: “Exhaustively researched and artfully assembled, Marvel Comics is a historical exploration, a labor of love, and a living illustration of how the weirdest corners of the counterculture can sometimes become the culture-at-large.”

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