Today’s reader of Marvel Comics is, on average, about 30 years old. That means these readers are the perfect demographic for Sean Howe’s tightly packed history of the company: they’ve got disposable income, they see comics as an artistic medium worth taking seriously, and chances are they’ve read enough of the Marvel catalogue to have daydreamed about what went on behind the scenes.
Howe’s book, perhaps in a nod to the chronic exaggeration of its source material, boldly announces itself as “the untold story” of the Marvel empire. I wonder how true this is. Certainly, the Brooklyn author has conducted plenty of new interviews; he’s also sifted through a ton of raw material. But Marvel’s trajectory has been told many times before, often by the people who lived it firsthand. Howe’s real contribution, then, is in his level of detail, in stripping away the sheen of self-mythology, and in getting first crack at chronicling the last decade or so of Marvel’s history, particularly as its film division starting hitting billion-dollar jackpots.
The book has some real problems, however, and the biggest one is downright heinous: no pictures! There’s no excuse for a history of a comic book company to offer no visual evidence, especially when it lingers on Jack Kirby’s revolutionary storytelling style, or the way Jim Starlin’s psychedelic Captain Marvel looked like “a black-light poster with dialogue.” A visual supplement is a must—I recommend Les Daniels’s 1991 Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics, or Howe’s own promotional Tumblr for the book (seanhowe.tumblr.com).
Then there’s the question of what happened pre-1961, before Kirby and Stan Lee created the Fantastic Four and kicked off the Silver Age of comics. This nascent part of Marvel’s story has always been patchy, yet Howe jumps from the early 1930s to Fantastic Four #1 in a scant 25 pages. Alas, it remains untold.
Once Lee and Kirby have joined forces, though, Howe’s method becomes clear: he painstakingly shows you what every significant writer, artist, and business executive was up to at any given time. His cast easily numbers in the hundreds, and the book seems expressly designed for eagle-eyed fans to squeal at the first cameo of their favourite future luminary. By that metric, it’s a thrilling success.
Yet Marvel Comics is exclusively a behind-the-scenes affair. As such, readers may be disappointed to learn more about the management styles of editors-in-chief like Roy Thomas and Jim Shooter than any of the titles they worked on. Howe’s analysis is mostly confined to high-water marks like Frank Miller’s iconic Daredevil run in the early 1980s and even—for some reason—Spider-Man’s origin story, which by now even preschoolers already know by heart.
This greatest-hits gloss leaves many far more interesting moments in Marvel’s history unexamined. For instance, Howe describes the unexpected smash success of a throwaway character called Howard the Duck, whose eponymous title inspired a “wild gold rush” among fans and collectors in 1976. But why? What about this strange, completely against-the-grain character resonated with the comics community? It’s never explained.
What Howe does reveal is what Marvel was like as an employer. It looks by turns inspiring and gruelling: a scary number of employees have died of heart failure before reaching middle age. Plus, there was always the possibility that some flashy upstarts would show up and put the company men out of work. At least here we get the consolation of knowing that brat packers like Rob Liefeld and Calgary’s Todd McFarlane—artists who sold millions of comics in the early ’90s with their flashy, overdrawn, anatomy-impaired characters—are exactly as petulant as they always appeared to be. I’ve waited years for this kind of validation.
And, of course, because Marvel was such an unbelievable hive of creativity, all kinds of fascinating facts can’t help but sneak through. Did you know that Lee once wrote an eco-activist screenplay with the French New Wave director Alain Resnais? It turns out, too, that superheroes can be inspired by all kinds of things. The Falcon’s physical appearance was based on a young O.J. Simpson; Ghost Rider was created to cash in on Evel Knievel’s popularity.
The Canadian angle is even less romantic. When Marvel introduced the flannel-clad Wolverine, who would become the company’s most popular character, it wasn’t for reasons of artistic inspiration. Rather, editor-in-chief Thomas “detected a need to exploit the Canadian market.”
Geez, don’t seduce us all at once, now.
Harper, 320 pp., $29.95, hardcover
(review originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, October 12, 2012)Oct 12, 2012