'Marvel Comics: The Untold Story': full of action, not so many heroes

Sean Howe's history of Marvel is compulsively readable

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Fifty-two years ago, comic books started to matter again after a decade of persecution and artistic neglect. The torpid Eisenhower years gave way to the optimism and vibrancy of Kennedy's New Frontier, creating an opening for pop narratives to say something interesting about America.

Huddled in a nondescript office on New York's Madison Avenue, Stanley Lieber -- a middle-aged aspiring playwright and novelist writing under the name Stan Lee -- and artist Jack Kirby, a veteran of two decades in the comic book production line system, stumbled upon a formula for making superheroes cool again.


By Sean Howe
HarperCollins ($26.99).

The previous heyday for comic books had been World War II, when the most popular titles like "Captain America," co-created by Mr. Kirby, sold in excess of 1 million and 2 million copies a month. That's when Mr. Lee's uncle got him a job at Timely, the company that would become Marvel Comics. The young Mr. Lee literally began his apprenticeship as an errand boy tasked with emptying Mr. Kirby's ashtray and doing the daily office deli run.

Martin Goodman, the company's owner, had made a fortune selling comics in the 1940s, but the good times were long over. Congressional witch hunts and paranoia about comics' alleged links to juvenile delinquency decimated the industry in the 1950s.

By the time Mr. Lee and Mr. Kirby created the Fantastic Four, a team of dysfunctional heroes who fought among themselves when they weren't saving the world, creditors were circling Mr. Goodman's company. The robust sales of "The Fantastic Four" got struggling Marvel Comics into the game against industry giant DC Comics, but it was Spider-man -- a character Mr. Lee created with artist Steve Ditko in the pages of "Amazing Fantasy" -- that produced the Immaculate Reception that eventually won the game.

Readers immediately connected to the angst-filled teenage superhero who, despite his dedication to fighting crime, still struggled with self-esteem issues and the indignity of always being broke. Peter Parker, aka Spider-man, may have possessed great powers, but he was still a "loser" from Queens. It was this kind of adolescent realpolitik millions of formerly indifferent comic book readers had been waiting for.

• • •

Sean Howe chronicles the growth and development of these and other characters in "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story." His exceptionally well-written and researched work traces the arc of the company's fortunes from the pulp era to its current incarnation as a billion-dollar Hollywood player.

Mr. Howe, a former editor and critic for Entertainment Weekly, doesn't restrict himself to recounting the upbeat creation myths that Marvel has spoon-fed its fans and the public for half a century. He goes beyond the origins of such icons as the Hulk, Iron Man, Dr. Strange, the X-Men and the Avengers to reveal the credit-hogging, corporate bullying, duplicity, heartbreak and base money-grubbing that threatened Marvel's existence at key times in its tumultuous history.

Mr. Kirby's growing alienation from Marvel and its ubiquitous front man Stan Lee is the narrative's central tragedy and the prism through which we view every conflict that follows.

"Marvel Comics: The Untold Story" is full of devastating observations like the following: "Either way, [Jack Kirby] didn't want to end up like the 63-year-old proofreader working quietly at the corner desk at the Marvel offices, thrown a job because Lee couldn't bear to see him so down on his luck, spat out by the industry he'd helped to build. Although Jerry Siegel didn't bring it up with people, a swirl of whispers followed as he made his way in and out of the office: That guy co-created Superman. DC Comics won't even let him in their offices anymore. Kirby refused to meet such a fate."

After spectacular runs on "The Mighty Thor," "The Fantastic Four" and "Captain America" in the late '60s failed to yield the artist the author credit and financial remuneration he craved, Mr. Kirby defected to rival DC Comics. He was tired of being treated like a glorified freelancer after having co-created the pantheon of heroes that would eventually earn billions in movie ticket sales and merchandise licensing for Marvel and its owners. It is to Mr. Howe's credit that he is able to show through nuanced reporting how Mr. Lee was as much an exploited worker as Mr. Kirby.

Longtime fans will appreciate Mr. Howe's mastery of Marvel's labyrinthine history and his ability to explain what happened behind the scenes, especially during the 1980s and '90s when palace intrigue and corporate shenanigans worked to undermine the quality of the product at every turn.

The middle chapters are filled with the kind of industry gossip that makes "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story" so compulsively readable. We've always suspected that the copious consumption of drugs led to particular story lines and character arcs by Marvel's second wave of young creators, but Mr. Howe is the first to commit their gloriously hazy story to record. He appears to have interviewed everyone in the industry on the record at one point.

Jim Shooter, Marvel's ninth editor-in-chief, makes his first appearance in a footnote on page 153. Mr. Howe explores the Bethel Park native's controversial tenure at Marvel, including his firing and a disgruntled writer/artist's decision to destroy Pittsburgh in a comic book that Mr. Shooter created.

After reading Mr. Howe's book, one wonders who would want to work in the comics industry -- especially at Marvel -- given its checkered history. Chances are, anyone interested enough in Marvel Comics to read a 432-page history would jump at the chance to work at the house that Stan and Jack built, even for a day.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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