Marvel Comics: The Untold Story By Sean Howe HarperCollins, US ISBN 978-0061992100 496pp.
Sean Howe’s book, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, would be far easier to review were it just another attempt to capitalise on the current popularity of comic books in the mainstream. After decades of being seen as juvenile publications catering to the marginalised and socially inept, comic books — sorry, “graphic novels” — have surged into a cultural gap that was previously occupied by… well, everyone. Gone are the shimmering, glitter-festooned, baseball-playing vampires of the Twilight crowd; somewhere in the distance, zombies are lurching towards being the Next Big Thing (held off valiantly by Brad Pitt wielding a shovel); here and now, the world seems to be hankering for zillionaire playboy geniuses with access to cutting-edge technology, aliens from another planet who want nothing more than to defend us against evil of all stripes, brooding vigilantes with serious daddy issues and angst-ridden teenagers with a decided arachnid influence. In 1961, the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, one Mr Stan Lee (known best perhaps for his cameos in any movie based on Marvel characters) wrote that “[Marvel was] trying (perhaps vainly?) to reach a slightly older, more sophisticated group”. Lee is most likely chuckling all the way to the bank each summer now, as Marvel Comics’ stable of super-hero do-gooders, misunderstood monsters and mythological warriors crop up in one feature after another, inspiring — literally — millions of people to cough up their cash to see their adventures on the big screen (in 3-D, no less). Almost as gratifying as the cash must be the sense that at long last, after decades of struggle and to-and-fro action between Marvel Comics and its chief rival, DC Comics, the former has emerged — unequivocally — victorious. In Marvel Comics, Howe traces the evolution (and occasional Darwinian devolution) of the comic-book titan from its original incarnation as Timely, a publisher of pulp fiction en masse to the raging titan of merchandising and spin-offs that it is today. Marvel, in the 1960s, was dying a slow and painful death; its then (and now) chief rival, DC Comics, had a battery of superstar characters and titles in play: Superman and Batman, to name but two. Against these two extremes — the near-omnipotent saviour of the world at large, and the all-too-human scourge of merely human crime, Marvel’s rag-tag assortment of monster, horror and romance publications were taking the sort of beating that even the Incredible Hulk would consider a bit much. It was the launch of Lee and Kirby’s The Fantastic Four, Howe points out, that marked a turning point for the embattled publishing house. Unlike any other super-heroes of the time, the FF were a morally ambiguous, argumentative team firmly rooted in classical Greek mythology. More than just being “different,” they were a game-changer; they gave the Marvel creative team a chance to catch its collective breath and rapidly pump out other mega-selling titles, including The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers and The X-Men. (Yes, you’ve seen them all in movie theatres. No, the films are not “just like the comic books”. Trust me.) These titles, taken as a whole, were what Howe describes as “the most intricate fictional narrative in the history of the world.” This is the sort of hyperbole that would make most readers scoff: of course anyone writing about comic books is going to rave about them. Like the people who put up cat videos on the internet, there is a presumption that only the clinically deranged or psychotically obsessed would bother to take on a history of comic books. To put together a full book on the history of one comics publisher would almost inevitably require the writer to be an über-fan of the genre/industry, which leads in turn to the assumption that such a writer would have a fairly significant axe to grind. Howe, much to his credit, deflates these beliefs with what is simply a great book: one loaded with research, characterisation, and the ability to tell a story without making it into a soap-opera. In Marvel Comics he balances drama with fact; behaviour with cultural context. Most importantly though, he finds, and deftly walks the fine line between love and respect for Marvel, its characters and their creators, with an almost jarringly clinical, objective look at a business run by a group of men whose rapaciousness would send Wall Street’s self-proclaimed “Masters of the Universe” into a tizzy of positive-thinking and self-affirmation seminars. Marvel has become, as Howe wryly puts it, a “virtual [intellectual property] farm club” for Hollywood. Between 1999 — when the first Marvel character came on screen (Blade, the Vampire Hunter) — and now, Marvel has managed to put out 24 different films based on its characters; almost two per year. The Avengers, which is the third-highest-grossing film ever made (beaten out only by the visual wizardry of Avatar and the cloying sap of Titanic), was led up to by five separate movies, each one generating staggering amounts of dosh (and from die-hard fans of each franchise, an equally staggering amount of critical outrage). But before it reached this stage of mega-bucks generation, Marvel was convinced that its ship had sailed. Howe quotes Lee as saying to a colleague, in keeping with the ship metaphor, that it was “like a ship sinking,” and the staff were “the rats”. It was not the first time Lee would be wrong. Howe pays particular attention to Lee’s predictions and behaviour — both good and bad — to bring to his readers a nuanced and equitable profile of someone who could easily be considered the father of the modern comic-book industry. At the crux of almost every major shake-up at Marvel, and convinced that the future of his company lay in breaking into Hollywood, Lee was equal parts savant and idiot. The research done by Howe, which includes interviews with a plethora of Marvel staffers and associates, including some names you wouldn’t expect, such as Mario Puzo and Federico Fellini, paints the picture of an erratic, somewhat kooky editor whose desperation comprised equal parts self-aggrandisement and a genuine desire to make his company the best of the best. This is evident most of all in one of Howe’s principal narratives, which traces the relationship between Lee and one of comics’ greatest, almost mythical figures: Jack Kirby. Kirby, who is practically a demi-god in the world of the comic book, was almost single-handedly responsible for creating a renaissance in the world of magazine publishing. Howe’s exploration of the relationship between Lee and Kirby is demagogic, and reveals the sort of clash of titans that could easily give any major super-hero/super-villain battle a run for its money. While to describe it in too much detail would be to give away some of the most compelling parts of the book, there is one passage in particular that embodies this battle: Lee and Kirby, long-estranged, spend their time on-air on a call-in radio show trading vitriolic barbs about honesty and fairness while still trying to somehow be friends. This is not particularly unusual though. Howe is relentless in exposing Marvel for the abysmal way in which it treated many of its key creators, subsuming their rights and engaging in labour practices that would make mining for blood diamonds seem like light gardening. To be fair, Marvel was not the only company to abuse its employees; it is however, perhaps the only one that had an editor-in-chief so universally reviled that when he was fired in 1987, the staff burned his effigy, along with copies of his failed work. Howe is concerned with the tale of a business, and this is where his passion as an aficionado of the genre really comes through. Marvel’s creators worked themselves to death — literally — only to see the profits from their blood, sweat, tears go to anonymous corporate suits, all of whom were interested only in somehow padding the bottom line. This is reasonable, certainly, from the perspective of a business owner; it is less understandable though, as we see Lee turn into a vainglorious, silly popinjay. The real heroes of Howe’s story aren’t Captain America and the Silver Surfer. They’re the underpaid artists, writers and office managers who spent decades suffering the depredation of what are arguably certifiable, avaricious executives, all of whom put Marvel and its creative team through the wringer. But despite the terrible working conditions and management style at Marvel, Howe is careful to give credit to the company for somehow incubating the kinds of creative tension that led to characters that are currently bringing in billions of dollars at the box office. What Howe achieves is a combination of cultural and critical insight, punditry and shameless love of comic-books that is no less inspirational than the characters produced by Marvel itself. Witty and incisive, the book is meticulously researched, gorgeously written, and compulsively readable, even if you think that comic books are delinquent literature at best. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a book that many probably wish hadn’t been written, but that many will be delighted to read.