The Secret History of Marvel Comics

Review by KC Carlson

First of all, the title is a misnomer. The subtitle — Jack Kirby and the Moonlighting Artists at Martin Goodman’s Empire — is better, but still slightly misleading. There’s not a huge amount of Jack Kirby work in here, and Fantagraphics is crazy if they think it’s actually shocking that comic book artists (especially in the Golden and Silver Ages) could be lured away from drawing musclebound dopes with capes to draw nekkid (or near nekkid) ladies. That’s a fair part of the content, information on how these superhero artists also drew salacious material for the pulps.

The actual, factual title of the book probably should be The Secret History of Martin Goodman’s Publishing Empire, but that title wouldn’t really make books fly off the shelves or get discussed on the internets. Perhaps The Secret, Sordid, Seedy History of Martin Goodman’s Sleazy, Shabby, Squalid Publishing Empire would be more spot on. Especially if you like alliteration.

Cleverly, one gets a great feel for what this book is mostly about by just perusing the quotes introducing each chapter of the book:

“Fans are not interested in quality.” — Martin Goodman

“This field is full of pirates.” — Martin Goodman

“No other field of endeavor is so populated with the get-rich-quick boys.” — Literary Digest

“[Martin Goodman] used to split my salary up into six different checks.” — Vince Fago, Timely Comics Editor-in-Chief

“If you get a title that catches on, then add a few more, you’re in for a nice profit.” — Martin Goodman

“We want plenty of sex, horror, and gore.” — Gene Fornshell, a Goodman editor.

“I felt that we were a company of copycats.” — Stan Lee

“The guys who published were monsters.” — Vince Fago

Probably the most telling graphic from the book is a simplified flow chart that includes eight Goodman family members on the payroll, including Stan Lee and his brother Larry Lieber. Stan barely knew his cousin-in-law Martin Goodman before he started work there.

Plucky Pulps, Manly Men, and Girly Girls. Clothes Optional.

Martin Goodman, of course, is the founding publisher of what would ultimately become Marvel Comics in the 1960s. He sold the company off in 1968, although he remained as publisher until 1972. His comic company went by more than one title, including Timely and Atlas, plus many other “secret” company names only found buried in the various indicia of his publications. But comics were just one part of his publishing “empire”. He also put out numerous pulps, periodicals, and paperback books — virtually all on the seedy side of publishing, including men’s magazines, girly humor cartoons in Humorama, and magazines full of photos of models, movie stars, and strippers. Goodman never passed up a fad or success that he couldn’t exploit, capitalize on, blatantly copy, or publish dozens (and dozens) of imitations, (mostly) getting out before the market was oversaturated, and frequently taking down his competitors along the way. This book is the amazing and highly captivating history of that publishing “dynasty”.

There’s also a side note to that story detailed within. The artists who toiled away on the four-color comics would also frequently be called on to contribute painted covers, illustrations, or occasionally even stories themselves. This, then, is the “secret” history of Marvel Comics that the book title alludes to, except that it wasn’t actually the Marvel Comics that we know today.

Fully-Packed With Art

There are hundreds and hundreds of illustrations in this book, from painted pulp and magazine covers to spot illustrations that accompanied the lurid stories and articles. Many of these are by well-known comic book artists, including Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Stan Lee, Alex Schomburg, Bill Everett, Carl Burgos, George Klein, Joe Maneely, and even Artie Simek (best known to comics fans as one of the historically important letterers and logo designers of Marvel’s Silver Age). The art samples also represent the very best pulp artists in the field, including Norman Saunders, John Walter Scott, Hans Wesso, L.F. Bjorklund, and Marvel Comics #1 cover artist Frank R. Paul. There are also a number of possibly surprising artists who contributed material that they’re not especially known for, including Al Jaffee, Dave Berg, Dan DeCarlo, Mort Walker, and Hank Ketcham. Not every artist on these lists drew overly sexual or sordid material, but a surprising number did. (This book: Not for young kids looking to learn more about Spider-Man and the Avengers.)

Though many might not recall, this book was originally solicited much earlier with a much smaller page count. Later, it was decided that the book would be immensely improved with increased space for more artwork — and individual galleries for all the artists listed above. This was a fantastically good call on Fantagraphics’ part, as what’s been unearthed here (much of it never reprinted) is both visually and historically stunning. The writers have posted a video walk-through of the book that shows some of it off, as seen here:

Written by comic book historians Blake Bell (Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, Fire and Water: Bill Everett, The Sub-Mariner, and the Birth of Marvel Comics) and Dr. Michael J. Vassallo (extensive notes for the Marvel Masterworks series and an upcoming bio of artist Joe Maneely), who have both dug deep for this book. (Comic history wonks will love the detailed Endnotes section, which unveils deeper information.) Plus, the authors have set up a special website for the book, featuring material that wasn’t able to be included, as well as a ten-part video series on the making of the book, among other historically secret things.

No One Else Will Care, But…

The detailed visual breakdown of ALL of Martin Goodman’s various publishing companies (based on the relative output of each — AND shaped like an office building!) would make for an incredibly wonky, designy poster for comics history nerds to go next to their Steranko Nick Fury of SHIELD poster. A lot of my comics friends will be staring at that fantastic page for hours.

The Secret History of Marvel Comics is a stunning book (in more ways than one) of beauties, beasts, and bombast, as well as a wonderfully askew look at the Precambrian Era of Marvel Comics. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

One Response to “The Secret History of Marvel Comics”

  1. Bill Hall Says:

    49 pieces of rare Kirby art is not a huge amount?!?!




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