Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story chronicles the rise, fall, and rise once more of arguably the most successful comic empire in the universe, Marvel Comics. For much of today’s generation of fans, Marvel is and has always been home to many of the world’s most popular comic book superheroes (minus Batman), even if much of their knowledge of the company comes from Hollywood blockbusters and not the printed pages that spawned them.
Ever present is Stan “The Man” Lee, aka Stanley Martin Lieber, whose neptonic rise from lowly assistant to company president and media personality is chronicled alongside the company he, with Jack Kirby (aka Jacob Kurtzberg) and Steve Ditko, as well as countless others, helped to transform from lowly pulp factory Timely Publications to DC second-ran to media giant. But success didn’t come easy, as Marvel – and by extension the entire comics industry – has navigated one of the bumpier roads to mainstream acceptance in all of entertainment.
Its a tale chock-full of “failed friendships, professional defections, bitter lawsuits, and untimely deaths”, as Howe puts it, that plays almost like a real-life version Michael Chabon’s’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (which was itself inspired by much of the era’s so-called Golden Age).
Howe spends a great deal of time detailing Marvel’s tumultuous 1970s era, a period that would not only cement Lee as the de facto face of the company but would also serve as a critical time of generational transition between the old guard and the new, often uncomfortably. There’s a level of demystification about Lee and just how much his contributions led to what has become the world’s most powerful comic empire. That should be expected when so many big personalities clash and mingle, each aiming to make their mark and secure credit for their work in a field many thought disposable.
But in many of these revelations have the taste of sour grapes, especially from those who worked closely with (or more often, under) Lee’s Hulk-like grip as the company battled for legitimacy (and profits) in an industry that toiled in the undercarriage of the publishing world, effectively neutered by the devastating Comics Code Authority. It’s fitting that Lee named his stable of artists “the bullpen”, as much of Marvel’s most prolific and myth-making came from this collection of talent who worked feverishly in assembly line fashion to crank out multi-tiered storylines, pages of artwork, all under intense deadlines and a future of uncertainty. For this to work it was clear someone would have to play the leader and Lee, however inelegantly, became the obvious choice.
DC could have the ice cream crowd; Marvel would take the marijuana-smoking, cerebral set instead, and they weren’t afraid to get a little psychedelic. That Lee was willing to take the role with such enthusiasm meant there would always be a bullseye on his back and would have to endure arrows from those who might not appreciate the difficulties of being puppet master.
Nowhere was this most evident than in the largely failed experiment that was Image Comics of the early 90s, an offshoot of mostly former Marvel, DC, and other freelance artists who hoped to maintain control over their creations. Creative freedom soon turned to chaos control, as many of Image’s famous artists soon realized the difficulties of having to simultaneously manage both artistic and financial obligations, to say nothing of maintaining personal relationships. It’s difficult to look back now and not appreciate what long term machinations Lee helped establish, however much we’d prefer to credit art for art’s sake.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing in a book about comics is the surprising lack of comics (for legal reasons), if only for reference. Sure, fans and newbies alike are probably familiar with the visages of Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and so many other of Marvel’s famous heroes. But what about Ant-Man, the original Human Torch, Wasp, or maybe just a few groovy samples from some of Marvel’s earliest forgotten heroes and experiments.
Sean Howe, a prolific comic book reviewer and Entertainment Weekly editor, does a great job of corralling what could have been an avalanche of comic geek-speak about such known quantities – at least in the comic book world. Comic newbies may want to take notes as central characters will frequently, much like their inky creations, pop in and out of the larger story being laid out here as Howe takes us from Marvel’s “Eureka!” moment (The Fantastic Four) through a troubled and incestous relationship with rival DC, certain financial doom, to their remarkable comeback in the new millenium. It’s a story with more twists and turns than one of Marvel’s serials, and that Howe keeps things balanced as well as he does is notable.
Still, there are times when his prose can get a little, well, excited. Whether endearing or just hyperbolic (I’ll leave that to readers), one quip stood out hilariously: “DC was still the biggest fish, and Marvel was the fastest-growing fish, but the pond was running out of water, and every splash counted.” Maybe he should be writing comics – Stan Lee would be proud.
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story doesn’t make for the easiest read, especially for those who might find it difficult to reconcile the idealism of art with the realities of commerce. Stan Lee is an omnipresent figure throughout, and while some might question how critical his role actually was in shaping the company’s history, there’s no denying he’s become the face of not just Marvel, but the entire industry. Most poignant are glimpses of an industry that too often fails to acknowledge those who helped build it, none more heartbreaking than witnessing Jerry Siegel, co-creator of Superman, toiling away as a pity hire on second-tier story lines. It’s a history of great successes and failures, one that easily rivals anything its namesake ever committed to the printed page. Above all else, it presents a stark reminder that the business of art is, after all, still a business.