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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.
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on October 15, 2012
First, let me say that my title doesn't mean the hobby isn't for adults. I wrote that in perspective to my own collecting (I'm 33 now) that started when i was 12. That childhood "innocence" resonated throughout this whole book for me.

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.
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on November 3, 2013
God knows, creative people are not usually the easiest creatures to work with and the passion that comic readers invest in these things is way beyond what I consider healthy. Sending out death threats to writers or artists because they killed a comic-book character isn't exactly someone working with a full storyboard in their head. Mr. Howe's "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story" is a clear-eyed view of the birth and evolution of the mighty comic publisher. A large portion of the book focuses more on the dynamics between management and the creators. The author thankfully avoids immersing "Marvel Comics" into the different cartoon characters' adventures. Sadly, all the illustrators who were the visual and sometimes creative brainchilds of the now iconic superheroes such as Spiderman, Captain America, Fantastic Four, Hulk, Wolverine and X-Men were looked upon as peons by the original owner Martin Goodman and the other executives who followed in his footsteps. The author does an excellent job of separating fact and fiction about the myths that have arisen around Stan Lee and illustrator-extraordinaire Jack Kirby.

The book certainly removed any romantic impressions I had about working in such a demanding and temperamental field. It was disheartening to see how a scrappy little company churned out these wonderful creations and eventually morphed into a corporate nightmare under the tutelage of odious, corporate raiders Ron Perelman and then Carl Icahn. At some points, you'll shake your head in disbelief at the gang-that-couldn't-shoot-straight executives' actions. I imagine "Marvel Comics" is a work that will interest people who read comics or have an interest in how the industry works. It would be nice to see a book written about the other publishing Goliath, DC Comics. Mr. Howe has written an extremely engaging book.
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on June 1, 2015
This book covers 75 years of Marvel comics history. That's a lot of information to choke down. It's interesting stuff but the television documentary on Marvel's 75th anniversary was easier to get through. Frankly, I learned things I might have been a little happier not knowing - like the backbiting and animosity between the writers and artists who created the comics and the publishers and editors who got them into the hands of the public.

It's not an easy task creating anything and comics are, apparently, harder than many other forms of writing because there are so many people who have a stake in it - including the readers.
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on April 8, 2014
A casual fan of Marvel comics might enjoy this, but a hardcore fan who carries 20-53 years of the 616 in their head will love this.

Stan Lee comes off poorly, which is not surprising but still disappointing. Artists and writers were screwed by Marvel (which often acted like a greedy, short-term focused company) for years, and Jack Kirby got the worst of it.

Sean Howe is clearly a fan of comics and knows his Marvel Universe, but that should not at all diminish the work he put into hundreds of interviews that make this book absolutely fantastic.

Some cool points/highlights:

(1) Dazzler was created to tap into the disco craze, even after it had already started to die.
(2) The X-Men saga into space during the late 70's was partly driven by the desire to capitalize on the Star Wars craze
(3) After Jim Shooter was fired, John Bryne took over "Starbrand" and promptly blew up Shooter's hometown of Pittsburgh
(4) After editors and writers started getting commissions in the early 90's, quality went down and "put Wolverine in it" was the line given to boost sales of any sagging book
(5) "Secret Wars" was made in order to sell toys
(6) Comics were blamed for juvenile delinquency in the 1950's
(7) Year later, Stan Lee had no idea who the New X-Men were
(8) Mark Gruenwald was a really fun guy
(9) It also covers the exodus of talent in the 90's and the creation of Image comics
(10) Frank Miller thought up the idea for "Born Again" when he was sitting in his bathtub in LA without any money

Seriously...if you've read this much of my review, you will LOVE this book. I don't like to use hyperbole, but in this case, it is deserved.
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on December 18, 2012
Colin Smith summed it up best (in a review on sequart.org): "...a substantial, equitable and thoroughly enjoyable if rather depressing read." I have been reading comics for over 45 years, and - though no longer a "fanboy" (or even a regular reader) - still love the medium and have a tender spot in my heart for 60's Marvel. This book does an excellent job of laying out how this universe was created, with a few talented people taking advantage of a low-stakes publishing venture to create something truly unique - and how their creation was immediately taken over by the corporate world (in its various, sometimes truly bizarre forms), to be squeezed dry by one corporate raider after another.
The tale of artists and writers used and then discarded and of Art shackled by accountants IS rather depressing, but it also made me appreciate all the more those occasional masterpieces that this machine did manage to produce over the years. Overall - 5 stars, for a very thoroughly-researched, clearly and evenly-told account of a fascinating story. I was not bothered by the lack of any art; this is NOT the tale of comics art, and this decision felt right to me. My one complaint would be the rushed account of the last decade - though I am hoping the reason for this is Howe leaving material for the next book... I, for one, will be pre-ordering!
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on September 9, 2016
I'd love to know if the characterizations of the comics business would ring true for the folks portrayed in this book, but, regardless of that, the book is a rapid and riveting read. I had no idea that the world of comics was (is?) such a painful, unrewarding, bitter, anger-filled world of unfulfilled promises, backstabbing, wild, crazed, ego-filled rampages, and literal and figurative bodies littering the comic book landscape. Only a few from the old days made it out alive and with their life's work adequately compensated. The rest were cast aside, left to find work in other industries or in a constant relay between Marvel and the other comic companies. There had to be PTSD cases in this industry and I'm hoping that it's improved since then.
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on September 6, 2015
Great stories from the history of Marvel. Reading it I sometimes wonder how Marvel survived as long as it did (And, in fact, was almost gone in the 90's.) Lots of personalities, lots of great stories, lots of dumb decisions made by people who didn't understand comics. It's a fascinating tale.
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on September 1, 2014
This book gives a history of Marvel comics, and by extension the comic book industry that it influenced and dominates. It is full of behind the scenes human drama that as young readers would not matter much to us, but those revelations fill in a lot of cracks and fascinate as we grow older and want to better understand the world we live in and the reading material that shaped many of us.

Growing up, comic books were my companions and Marvel comics had a magic that warmed me that continues to this day. I will still sit down in a library or bookstore and spend a few hours reading stories from my past or new ones that are being developed now. Comics were fun, they connected with some part of me that needed what they offered. Maybe they kept me distracted from some things in life that might have dragged me down had I focused on them. Comic books were a kind of lifeline for me. At the end of most lifelines we cling to is a human being and that is true here as well. Marvel comic books, those magnificent modern myths were, like all myths, created by people and this book discusses those people and the way they shaped the Marvel company. What emerges is a picture of a reality we never suspected as children. We love the art but frequently the artist is not who we imagined.

The author, Sean Howe does a good job exposing the human interaction, the creativity, the contracts, the admirable, the petty, the honorable, the idiosyncratic, all the ingredients of life are present in the Marvel comics’ story and they are compelling reading. For me reading so long ago Lee and Kirby and all the players in the Bullpen were simply having fun. Like so many who read them I imagined Marvel comics to be a theme park where dreams were encouraged and indulged. When reading the works of Lee, Kirby, Ditko, Steranko, the pure pleasure lept off the page and inside the reader. We all thought, surely Marvel is a place where gifted people have fun all day and night. This book turns that idea on its ear and gives a deeper sample of a more adult reality. Human beings, the kind that live and work in offices, made Marvel comics and for all the deep joy they brought to their adoring audience, the backstage perspective exposes the fully human aspects that I never would have understood as a kid reading those stories. The business of Marvel comics is what we have come to expect from profit oriented enterprises. There is no shortage of cheated artists, corporate objectives, or swollen egos. Marvel comics was, and is, a mix of talented, heroic, selfish, flawed, grand or tunnel visioned human beings trying to tell great stories in a structure that needs it on Tuesday in order to keep the lights on and the shareholders happy. Comics are a human construction, and creating art and fun is not always artful and fun. This is partly an examination of art as business.

Who is this for? Mostly comic geeks like me, although history of business students might enjoy seeing the ontogeny of the Marvel organism as it evolved from some guys trying make a living with sequential art and seeing it grow into a very odd animal indeed. There is much for everyone to reflect on in this story. There could be a deeply complicated discussion of an art from where the stories and characters are handed from creator to creator and never age or really die and there is no true end. Perhaps most importantly it could be a test of your character. As you are exposed to the behaviors of everyone who made or make Marvel run you might find yourself examining your choices and where you might have made your stand had you been there.
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on July 16, 2014
Wow!!! I don't normally read non-fiction, but saw this book recommended on one of my favorite comic blogs. I'm glad I decided to step out of my comfort zone and buy this. As a comic collector for over 30 years (and a Marvel "fanboy" for most of that time) this tome was a compelling look at the publisher's origins and history from its beginnings up to about 2012. I think this book should be required reading for any comic fan (regardless of what publisher you're "loyal" to) to understand what went into making the industry what it is today, the early (and some might argue, continued) struggles of artists and writers, and chart how much comics have changed in the last 70-plus years.

I think Sean Howe deserves a medal for the amount of research that went into pulling this book together. The beginning of the book drags a bit as the names of artists, writers, publishers and executives are thrown at you. But when the book works its way into the 60s and 70s (and some of the names become more familiar) is when it really hits its stride. I can't say this is grab-you-by-the-collar page turner. However, Sean does an excellent job of keeping the the pace moving throughout, and not getting too bogged down by the details.

All-in-all this is a great read, and highly recommended for any and all comic fans. 5 stars and extremely recommended!
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