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Marvel Comics: The Untold Story Paperback – October 1, 2013
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Howe’s in-depth account of Marvel’s business history, revered personalities, and pop-culturally ingrained characters boasts exhaustively researched and intricately integrated information. And loads of it, as this isn’t just one story—it’s a bunch of knotted tales strung together. It’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby creating a pantheon of modern American superheroes. It’s the rote staff changes and personnel quirks that made Marvel the company it was. It’s the siren call of Hollywood cash that made it the company it is today. It’s a look at the American comic-book industry as a whole over the last half-century. It’s a priceless collection of anecdotes about the artists and writers reflecting and filtering the eras they worked in. The most timely strand threads through issues of creators’ rights and intellectual property, an argument that’s heating up today’s comics climate. Casual fans may find more than they bargained for, but for the Marvel faithful, this is the definitive book on the company responsible for aligning the cosmos in their favorite fictional universe. --Ian Chipman --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
“Sean Howe’s history of Marvel makes a compulsively readable, riotous and heartbreaking version of my favorite story, that of how a bunch of weirdos changed the world. That it’s all true is just frosting on the cake.” (Jonathan Lethem)
“A warts-and-all, nail-biting mini-epic about the low-paid, unsung ‘funnybook men’ who were unwittingly creating twenty-first century pop culture. If you thought the fisticuffs were bare and bloody on the four-color page, wait ‘til you hear about what went down in the Marvel bullpen.” (Patton Oswalt)
“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.” (Chuck Klosterman)
“Page after page, Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics manages to be enchantingly told, emotionally suspenseful and totally revelatory. If I knew more about superpowers, I’d be able to explain how he did it.” (Sloane Crosley)
“Sean Howe is to Marvel Comics what Procopius was to the Byzantine Empire: a court gossip of breathtaking thoroughness and exactitude, and a sly and nuanced writer. It is imperative that this work not fall into the hands of alien species, or we’re done for.” (Luc Sante)
“A jittery, hilarious, anecdotal, and exhaustive history of the company. . . . If you’re a comics fan, this is essential reading. If you’re not, then it’s merely fascinating. Howe has written a biographical history of modern America’s id.” (GQ)
“Sean Howe’s gripping new history lays out five decades of Marvel adventures and insanity, and will make you believe that comic-book creators have even weirder lives than their mutant creations.” (Rolling Stone)
“Marvel Comics is a meticulous chronicle of the real secret origins of the superhero, a tragic love story about the relationship between a long parade of passionate, talented superhero devotees and the company that didn’t love them back.” (The Los Angeles Times)
“It’s about time somebody wrote Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, and it looks like Sean Howe was the right guy for the job. Howe’s clear-eyed history. . . is as full of colorful characters, tragic reversals and unlikely plot twists as any book in the Marvel canon.” (Newsday)
“Exhaustively researched and extraordinarily compelling. . . . A quasi-Shakespearean portrayal of Marvel as it moves from spirited upstart to ruthless corporate colossus.” (Salon)
“A superpowered must-read for anyone hooked on comics, as well as a gripping story for someone merely enlightened by a genre that’s always had to fight for respect. It’s much more about ordinary, flawed humans than super men and women, and therein lies its excellence.” (USA Today)
“Howe, a widely published critic with a real knack, rare for his field, for reporting, gets farther inside the company than anyone else has. . . .An essential read for anyone who loves comics, but civilians with a taste for gossip will enjoy it too.” (The Daily Beast)
“A corporate biography of America’s most significant comic-book publisher and a definitive portrait of comics in American culture. . . . Howe offers vivid reporting and enticing detail. . . . The result is a book both authoritative and charmingly readable.” (The Wall Street Journal)
“Fascinating, compelling reading. . . . Exhaustively researched. . . . What ultimately propels you to keep turning the pages of this fat, enjoyable book are the endless anecdotes about how the Marvel Universe was shaped.” (The Miami Herald)
“A vivid account. . . . Comics have proven an enduring art form, gaining new fans without losing the old ones. Howe’s exhaustively researched love letter to Marvel should find grateful readers among both groups.” (The Boston Globe)
“Hugely entertaining.” (The New Republic)
Top customer reviews
For the first couple chapters, I wasn’t so sure. In Chapter 1 Howe covers the entire history of Marvel, formerly known as Timely Comics, up through the 1950s. That’s the entire Golden Age in less than 30 pages! Howe isn’t really concerned, however, with the myriad genres that Timely used to publish—western, horror, romance, funny animals, and so on. This is really a history of what Marvel is most famous for—the superheroes, beginning with the Silver Age pantheon created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and in some cases, Steve Ditko. Chapter 2 covers the birth of the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, the Avengers, X-Men, and Spider-Man. Howe’s recaps of origin stories and mythologies get a little long-winded, leaving one to wonder when the “untold story” is going to begin.
From that point on, however, the book really hits its stride and becomes incredibly addictive, with vivid details and surprising revelations on every page. This isn’t a literary history of Marvel’s creative glories, but rather a true business history, replete with mergers, acquisitions, and struggles for administrative power. I’ll confess some of the financial and legal details were over my head, and at times, I could have used a little less detail. Over the course of superhero comics history, writers and artists continually defected from Marvel to DC and back again, and Howe keeps you apprised of each and every arrival and departure. Nevertheless, it’s better to commit sins of excess than omission, and Howe’s thorough, behind-the-scenes exposé of life inside the Marvel bullpen is probably the next-best thing to working there.
Though written in the third person, the book has the feel of an oral history, likely because Howe interviewed about 150 former Marvel employees. Howe lets all sides get their two cents in without passing judgment. The long-fought battle between Lee and Kirby over creative ownership of certain characters, for example, is handled in a fairly balanced manner. Howe diligently follows the trail of rancor, and neither party comes out smelling like a rose. Stan the Man comes across as somewhat pathetically clueless, while King Kirby is depicted as taking his justifiable grievances to delusional excess. In general, Howe subtly favors individual creators over big business, but he always presents both sides of an argument.
Though Howe celebrates the company’s creative triumphs, his overall picture of the Marvel empire is rather unflattering. As he charts the trajectory of the publisher through boom and bust periods, he makes it pretty clear that over time the company has sacrificed creative quality in favor of commercialism, diluting the integrity of its treasured characters for a quick buck. As one of the many fans Marvel lost in the ‘90s, I have a tendency to agree with him, which is perhaps why I enjoyed the book so much. There are other good books on Marvel history out there, like the self-congratulatory Marvel Chronicle: A Year by Year History or Mark Evanier’s excellent biography Kirby: King of Comics, but if you’re looking for one book that’s going to give you the clearest, most complete picture of the Marvel story, this is it.
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.