Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

A brief review,
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. Sean Howe. Harper Collins. 484 pages. $27.

This has got to be one of the most non-comic book books reviewed that I have ever seen.  In case you weren't aware this is nothing but words!  Can you believe it?  Trust me, I was surprised when I saw that too.   But, let me add my voice to everyone else who's said this book is great.  It really, really is must reading if you are a fan of comic book history, or if you just want to know about everything that goes on behind the scenes at a comic book company.

This isn't about the history of any of the heroes, or even any of the creators, it's just a history of Marvel, the company.  It starts when Martin Goodman, publisher of men's magazines, realizing he can make money with a new product called the comic book.  It shows how Stan Lee ran the comic book division in both the good, and bad times.  And finally, how the company grew to be the juggernaut it is today.

The book is broken into 5 sections, or time periods, which more or less correspond to the Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, 80's and the 90s and beyond.  The GA section was interesting in the sense that it was heavy on how the industry was born and how Marvel (called Timely then) get into the business.  It's interesting in a factual sort of way.

The Silverage is when the story really started to become real to me.  When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby create the Fantastic Four and begin the creation of the modern Marvel Universe, it's near impossible to put the book down.  As I said, this isn't about the heroes, what this discusses are the people who made the characters and wrote the stories.  You can read about the huge egos run rampant.  You witness the end of Stan's relationship with both Kirby and Ditko.  You read about Roy Thomas, the new kid, coming in and trying to maintain the system.  There is also plenty of insight into how the "Marvel Style" was developed and which creators worked well in the system, and which ones didn't.

During the bronze age, you read about Jim Starlin and Steve Englehard being spaced out of their minds on acid wandering NYC thinking up new ideas!  It's during this time that you start to see Marvel transform from small company and creators working for fun into a true corporation.  After that, you get to read about the adventures of Jim Shooter, the advent of Jim Lee and others, and Marvel transforming itself into Disney lite.  Finally, you read how corporate raiders nearly destroyed Marvel. 

The amount of research that went into this book is incredible.  It's like Sean Howe read every fanzine and comic related publication from the 60's until today and compiled them into one book.  Not to mention the amount of interviews he must have conducted to get some of these stories.  This really is part oral history, part fact sheet.  What amazed me the most was how the creators slipped so much of the real world into the Marvel Universe.  I loved just reading about all the metatext that was stuffed into the Marvel U.

As much as I loved this book, I also hated it.  What is the old saying, "once you see behind the curtain..."  Well, this is certainly the case for me.  I've always been a comic book reader.  I read about my favorite characters and followed my favorite writers and artists.  But I never read Marvel Age, or Amazing Heroes, or Wizard magazine.  I just read the comics.  Well, after the Bronze age Marvel completed its transformation into corporate behemoth, the inner workings of the company got really nasty.  Actually it started before then but the worst was after the 70s.  As the Marvel coffers were drained to line the pockets of already rich men, it's like reading about friend being beaten.  It's sad.  It's depressing.  And, it makes me glad that I was blissfully ignorant at the time.

Even beyond the corporate silliness, it's incredible difficult to read how the men you admired had feet of clay and their own egos brought them down.  It's hard to read about people toiling away making the books I loved being treated badly over and over again.   It's especially bad once you get to the 90s and Marvel, the company, turns into a big, emotionless corporation.  I've always known that it happened, but to read about it just hurts. 

Would I recommend this book?  Heck yes!  The first half of the book captured all the wonder of building a new industry.  Even with the bumps along the way, there was a sense of fun.  The second half in which many, many people try to do nothing but strip Marvel of its intellectual property clearly shows you how comics got to the state they are currently in.  Be warned, after reading this book you won't be able to look at the industry the same way again.

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