[This history of the celebrated and reviled comic book publisher is a C4 Great Read.]13623814

Author: Sean Howe

2012, HarperCollins

Filed under: Historical, Nonfiction

Find it at Goodreads

I suspect many people who grow up reading comics have had roughly the same relationship with Stan Lee as I have: at first he is the face of Marvel Comics, beloved for his role in creating the X-Men and Spider-Man; then, as I grew up and learned to appreciate Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Stan Lee seemed less important, more hokey uncle than genius storyteller; finally, when I began to learn about the company’s history and the disputes over credit and iffy work-for-hire contract claims, Lee became a traitor, representing the company’s business interests while masquerading as an enthusiast for the medium. In a plot twist that could’ve come out of an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, the once friendly father figure turns out to be the villain.

But classic Marvel villains are always somewhat sympathetic, and though Sean Howe’s superlative Marvel Comics: the Untold Story, recently reissued in paperback, doesn’t exactly reframe that narrative, it does find gray areas, caveats, and compromises to complicate my rather simplistic take on Lee. Still a company man through and through, the version of Stan “the Man” offered in Howe’s history is wracked by guilt, frustrated by unrealized ambition, and ultimately reduced to a figurehead role in a company he planned to one day escape.

That said, Lee is only one of several prominent players. Howe organizes the book around a series of binary conflicts: artists vs. writers, writers vs. editors, old vs. young, corporate interests vs. artistic freedom, characters vs. creators, Lee vs. Kirby, and Jim Shooter vs. pretty much everyone. Some of those conflicts are the kinds of creative scuffles that produce interesting art, but many more are driven by vanity and ego and result in missed opportunities, disastrous business decisions, and hamstrung careers. And if Stan Lee is the heavy for much of the book (though he’s a mini-boss compared to Marvel’s corporate owners, who wreak most of the serious havoc) then Jack Kirby is the martyr, an unparalleled creative force who designed the look and feel of Marvel Comics for at least half a century but was denied the credit and compensation he was owed. By contrast, Howe positions writer Steve Gerber, creator of Howard the Duck and Omega the Unknown, as the book’s hero – a nonconformist who, aware his best ideas were being given to a company that would only underpay for and misuse them, struck out as a freelancer instead of moving across the street to DC as so many others did. Gerber’s example returns in the 90s, but with somewhat different results, when fan favorite artists Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, and others left the company to form Image Comics, marking the beginning of Marvel’s decade long decline.

The schizophrenic 90s comics market, and the destructive editorial and corporate practices that created and perpetuated it, comprises the books third act. Those chapters lack the rich narrative and detailed character study of the first half (a telling parallel: as Marvel grows larger and it’s corporate ownership becomes more active, the book becomes less compelling) but they have the most to say about the state of mainstream comics today, particularly at DC. Flooding the market with books that look the same, with largely interchangable characters and plots, written and drawn by talented people who chafe under editorial mandates and, after one too many last minute rewrites, publicly leave the company to find work at competing publishers – move the dates up, switch out some of the names (many 90s Marvel figures, including editor-in-chief Bob Harras, are currently at DC), and replace Spider-Man with Superman (and his terrible Nehru collar) and the story is almost exactly the same.

So what does that mean for DC? Given it’s corporate parentage in Time-Warner, a protracted bankruptcy seems unlikely, and character licensing continues to be lucrative (Man of Steel was one of the top grossing films of 2013, despite being only half-ok, and the impending sequel looks to top that both in spectacle and ticket sales.) But it isn’t difficult to imagine a future DC existing solely to protect trademarks and make licensing arrangements, for both merchandise and publications (in Untold Story Howe details a time in the mid-80s when a beleaguered DC nearly sold the license for it’s most popular characters to Marvel, so there’s nearly a precedent for it.)

Which isn’t to say that Marvel isn’t facing some of the same problems. While the past five years or so has seen the company turn a corner, producing a more varied slate of books to meet the needs of a rapidly subdividing readership – more off-beat titles with singular looks like Hawkeye and The Superior Foes of Spider-Man share space with Brian Michael Bendis’s standard superhero fare, the psychedelic Marvel Knights books, and the all-ages fun of Hulk: Agents of S.M.A.S.H. – that readership is growing slowly, and comic books compete with video games and iPhone apps for it’s attention. Barring a drastic social shift of some kind, even those effective editorial practices don’t seem likely to save Marvel publishing from becoming nothing more than a loss leader for Disney’s property acquisition.

Howe doesn’t speculate in detail about the future of Marvel, but his concluding paragraphs are somewhat somber, as if he what he’d written wasn’t just the untold story of Marvel, but rather a preemptive eulogy for comic books as we know them, one last chance to tell the story (and affix blame) before the story comes to an end.

Similar reads: Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, by Gerard Jones; The Ten-Cent Plague: the Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America, by David Hadju; Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, by Peter Biskind