Marvel Chronicle: A Year by Year History
Review by KC Carlson
Ever since I heard about the concept of Marvel Chronicle, I’ve been dying to see the book. I love books like this, packed with facts and trivia, and I think that every major comics company needs to have a publishing history/timeline like this. I’m not surprised Marvel got to it first.
Obviously designed to be DK’s major comic-related book for the holiday season, Marvel Chronicle is a lavishly produced gift book, housed in its own illustrated box. The wraparound cover illustration by Jim Cheung has also been reproduced as two prints — one color and one B&W — that are slipcased inside the box. (Although I do have to nitpick a bit, as the prints greatly reduce the size — and the incredible detail — of the original.) The 352-page book is dynamically, but functionally, designed and the book itself features a clever die-cut cover — a giant “M”!
Unlike your typical coffee table book, Marvel Chronicle is densely packed with hours and hours of reading and hundreds of illustrations. Set up in a chronological month-by-month format, the book covers almost 70 years of Marvel history, from 1939’s Marvel Comics #1 and the first appearances of the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner all the way up to this summer’s Secret Invasion #1.
Written by an all-star line-up of past and present Marvel editors and historians, the Chronicle takes each year of Marvel history and breaks it down in monthly bites, indicating the debuts of major Marvel heroes and villains, as well as the comings and goings of the major artist and writers handing the books. There’s also a handy little sidebar indicating each year’s “real world” events, including all the headlines in politics, sports, and pop culture trends in music and movies.
For me, the fun of these kinds of books is the ability to see the bigger picture of the ongoing history and visually put certain events in various books in their proper order. Or to discover interesting “key” months where some major unrelated elements of Marvel history were created at virtually the same time — as in January 1981, where both Elektra and “Days of Future Past” were introduced. Or that the return of both the X-Men and Howard the Duck occurred in May of 1975. Or that Gwen Stacy died in the very same month — June 1973 — that Mantis, the future Celestial Madonna appeared. (Hmmm…) May 1971 was a key month for the maturation of Marvel Comics as Savage Tales #1, the Comics Code-less Spider-Man drug storyline, and the Harlan Ellison plotted Avengers-Incredible Hulk crossover all began. The following month, the Kree-Skrull War began in Avengers, heralding comics’ first mega-event. Who knew?
Of special note is the chapter on Marvel in the 1950s, written by Tom Brevoort about a much-maligned but truly fascinating era of transition. Brevoort does a very creditable job finding many interesting facts of a period which has yet to be well documented by comics historians. This goes also for Peter Sanderson’s look at 1939-1949, a period slightly better known due to the incorporation of much of Marvel’s Golden Age Heroes and mythology into the current continuity, but Sanderson has dug deeper to explore Marvel’s entries into funny animals and comics for girls. Those of you who love the current Marvel U might be tempted to skip past these chapters. Don’t do it — there’s lots of fascinating stuff here!
The minor element of the book that I’m not so in love with are the many double-page spreads of artwork. There’s a montage of 50s splash pages and the occasional comparison of original art to the printed cover — both of which are great — but when it’s just a single cover or image, printed sideways, I feel that many of the art choices are not that inspiring. And I am so over the giant-blow-up of an actual comics page — especially when it’s badly out-of-register! I’m not exactly sure that She-Hulk is the best character to represent the artistic legacy of John Buscema (pg. 204-205), but I am loving the giant-size B&W wash artwork by Walter Simonson from The Rampaging Hulk (pg. 182-183)!
There are a couple of typos here and there — John Byrne did not team with Chris Claremont on X-Men #1 (in the introduction to 1979), it was actually #108 — but nothing too serious. And because it’s written by a bunch of Marvel guys, you’re not going to find a lot of critical discussion here. I found the earlier chapters a little more even-handed, while some of the later chapters are more “rah-rah” Marvel, but what do you expect from the house of Stan Lee?
There is much discussion about the creation of new titles or characters, but if you’re looking for solid information about when certain titles were canceled, you need to look elsewhere. There definitely aren’t any revelations about problems between Stan or Jack or Stan and Steve or why Kirby was treated so badly by Marvel in the 80s. It is, after all, a celebration of all things Marvel, and if you can accept that going in, you’ll have a fun ride!
By the way, if you can’t find Marvel Chronicle on the shelf in the graphic novel section of your local bookstore, snoop around the store a bit. DK has designed a special freestanding display stand for the book, with a sample copy that you can flip through in the store! (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)
Great review. This is on my Christmas list and hopes that it lands under my tree. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I really think it’s important for not only comic readers to keep up with the history of what has come before, but for comic book creators as well. Learning what has come before will only make what’s to come better.