Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

Review by KC Carlson

Like the brash and unpredictable characters they created or shepherded, the creators, editors, and businesspeople behind Marvel Comics are an unpredictable, battle-weary lot. Which is the story that author Sean Howe tells in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, a new 480-page biography of “The House of Ideas” due in October from HarperCollins. It’s fast-moving and lively. At the same time, it’s exhausting to read, as it’s a long litany of seeing our flesh-and-blood heroes take turns throwing each other under a bus. (Not unlike the four-color characters that they work on.)

Longtime Marvel watchers and comics fans already know this — the inherent and inevitable Stan Lee/Jack Kirby conflict being much of the basis of what Marvel represents — but I suspect that this book isn’t going to be for them. Sean Howe is a former editor and critic at Entertainment Weekly and has other media credits as well. So make no mistake — this book is an Entertainment Bio of the company, primarily concentrating on all of Marvel’s many business mistakes over the decades, as well as the struggle to get control over their movie/media product, culminating in its recent successes. There aren’t many plot descriptions of key Marvel comic book stories, nor much biographical material on the people who created the comics, beyond book-jacket-style blurbs. The folks in the corporate offices get more attention and background than many of the creators.

Fittingly, the book is currently being marketed with pull quotes from name entertainment figures like Jonathan Lethem (Omega the Unknown), Chuck Closterman (“The Ethicist”, The New York Times Magazine), and Patton Oswalt (comedian and vocal comic book fan and writer). Curiously, we don’t know what Stan Lee thinks about this book (although he contributed plenty), which seems odd after years of seeing Stan’s name everywhere as Marvel’s primary public face. It will be interesting to see the comic book community’s reaction to this book, once it’s available to the public.

The Inciting Incident

The book itself is structured chronologically, beginning with the company’s origins in 1939 (as Timely Publications) with publisher Martin Goodman hiring Joe Simon to be the first Timely editor, along with artist Jack Kirby. The pair went on to create Captain America. Later that year, Goodman hired Stanley Lieber (his wife’s cousin) as general staff. Soon thereafter, Lieber began writing (initially, a text feature in Captain America) under the pen name of Stan Lee. Simon and Kirby would leave Captain America after only 10 issues for business reasons (the duo were being shorted on royalties). Simon and Kirby actually began moonlighting for DC Comics while still working on Cap and were eventually fired from Marvel. Kirby was convinced that Lee had ratted them out (after letting Stan in on the secret), setting the stage for multiple conflicts — both business and personal — over the next 70 years. This was the shaky foundation that Marvel was built on.

By the late 1950s, Lee and Kirby had re-teamed (along with Steve Ditko and other artists) to tell monster and mystery stories in the era after the superheroes (almost) faded away. In 1961, Marvel Comics began (although it wouldn’t be called that until the following year), as Lee and Kirby combined to create new kinds of super heroes, including the Fantastic Four — steeped with humanity with all of its flaws. They were quickly followed by the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange (these latter two with Steve Ditko), and many more — all scripted by Lee, and most originally drawn by Kirby.

The way that Lee and Kirby (and Ditko) worked was that stories were generally co-plotted, often by phone, with Kirby creating the visual storytelling and art — and suggesting dialog — while Lee would write the final dialog. This informal way of working (frequently called “Marvel Style”) was originally developed, almost by accident, as a way for Lee and Kirby to work fast (and mostly apart). It would lead to one of Marvel’s most frustrating ongoing failures — the refusal to recognize the creative work of their talented freelance staffers. Much of this book tells the story of Kirby (and Ditko, although he mostly just walked away in frustration) and his corporate struggles in seeking recognition and compensation from Marvel. Stan was little help, becoming almost a hopeless cog in the eventual corporate machine that was Marvel.

The History — and the Horror!

Many comic book historians find this period of Marvel to be the heart and soul of the company, its most creative years. Even if many of the actual stories haven’t aged well, the ideas, concepts, and dynamics have. The rest of the company’s history is built on cosmetically and frequently modifying (“the illusion of change”) what was first created here.

Sadly for this book, this period of time is curiously given short shrift (approximately 1/5 of the book) to make more room to tell of the corporate battles and boardroom intrigue to come. Kirby and Lee (and Ditko) bailed from the creative end of Marvel by the early 1970s. All would eventually return, but it seemed that corporate Marvel had no idea how to best utilize their talents.

The rest of the book covers the corporate struggles to turn Marvel into a major entertainment company, or at least make it more attractive, so that a bigger fish — like Disney — would come calling. Editorial struggles lead to major creative differences and the ebb and flow of departures (frequently sudden) and new arrivals to replace the fired or burned-out. Names frequently mentioned in these chapters include Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Dave Cockrum, Steve Gerber, Jim Starlin, Don McGregor, Frank Miller, Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Peter David, Grant Morrison, as well as everybody who ever sat in the Editor-In-Chief (or Executive Editor) chair — almost all of whom ultimately left the company under some form of duress or having been fired.

But it’s not all sturm und drang: occasionally, there are bits of the legendary (although mostly fictitious) camaraderie of the Marvel Bullpen with input from key staffers like John Romita (Sr.). He’s one of Marvel’s very best artists, but more important here as one of the few voices of reason. Also heard from (or about) are former staffers Flo Steinberg, Marie Severin, and Duffy Vohland, all of whom put a more human face on Marvel, reminding us that it wasn’t all corporate battles.

One of the more touching stories in the book covers the working relationship between two longtime Marvel Bullpenners, Morrie Kuramoto and Jack Abel. (I think. Unfortunately, the advance copy of the book didn’t have an index yet, and I was reading it in bits and pieces while on the road — and not taking very good notes.) Described as being like an old married couple, Kuramoto and Abel were quirky but genial friends and coworkers, and it was heartbreaking to read of their (separate) deaths just a few pages later. A reminder that just like the fictional Marvel Universe, unexpected death was no stranger to the Marvel staff. (Editor Mark Gruenwald and Direct Sales Manager Carol Kalish just to name two.)

Speaking of Direct Sales — the weird little distribution arrangement unique to comic books — virtually that entire history is also told in this book, albeit in dribs and drabs and between the lines, as Marvel was either strongly supportive of it or Direct Sales’ worst enemy, depending on how the wind was blowing that day. Voices like Kalish, Sven Larsen, and Lou Bank are also heard from here.

E Is for Editor

I’m somewhat horrified by the number of typos and flat-out bonehead mistakes — X-Men writer Chris Claremont is at one point identified as its artist — in this advance uncorrected proof. I’m hoping that an excellent editor/proofreader/fact-checker has since poured over the manuscript since this was sent out. Most of the problems pop up in the early part of the book, so I’m suspecting maybe transcribing errors — it seems much of the early history of Marvel in this book was largely sourced from internet and fanzine sources, some of these not always the most accurate or balanced.

Unfortunately, not much of the early Marvel history could be told from new interviews (with most of the principals being unfortunately dead), so I found myself reading a lot of stuff that I’ve previously read elsewhere. The more modern years of the book were backed up with new interviews from over 150 people, including pretty much everybody that was a major editor or creator at Marvel that was still living. Interestingly, not many DC staff names pop up in the acknowledgments (other than those who worked at both companies like Denny O’Neil, Mike Carlin, and Matt Ragone). In many ways, the book continues the unfortunate perception that Marvel Comics exists in a vacuum.

E Is for E.C. Comics

The most humorous typo in the book was actually eerily entertaining to me. It’s major comic book lore that E.C. publisher (and eventually MAD publisher) William M. Gaines testified at the 1954 Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency (frequently referred to as the Kefauver Hearings, because Senator Estes Kefauver was a prime opponent of comic books in that era). Unfortunately, the uncorrected Marvel book gets one small detail wrong. It says that it wasn’t William who testified, but instead his father Max, who had died in a boating accident seven years earlier. Of course, if the deceased Max Gaines had testified, it would have made the affair even more E.C.-like. For instance:

Senator Kefauver: Here is your May 22 issue (Crime SuspenStories #22). This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?

Mr. (Max) Gaines: Yes, sir; I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.

(Holds out rotted arm to indicate cropping differences. Arm falls off.)

Mr. (Max) Gaines: Hmm. Five minute recess, please.

The Deus ex Machina

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a fascinating, can’t-put-it-down book, if you don’t tire of the endless stories of corporate intrigue and in-fighting. But conflict sells books, I’m told. It’s also fascinating to see all of Marvel’s bonehead business mistakes assembled in one convenient place. Individual people are responsible for what’s best about Marvel Comics, and I would have better enjoyed a book that was mostly about them. That book has yet to be written. But it should be. (The publisher provided an advance review copy.)


One Response to “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story”

  1. Good Comics Out October 10, Including Buffy and Stumptown » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] a graphic novel, but if you’re curious about the much-discussed book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (Harper Collins, $26.99), KC reviewed a galley copy a couple of months […]




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