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From excelsior to excess
on January 17, 2017
At first I was a little skeptical about the subtitle of Sean Howe’s 2012 book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. I grew up reading Marvel Comics and have read other books on the company’s history. After finishing Howe’s version, however, I’m happy to report that his investigative journalism into Marvel’s past is quite impressive, and the book makes for a truly fascinating read.
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.