Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is an extremely enjoyable addition to the warts-and-all, behind-the-scenes genre of pop historical writing. It’s not an academic-style history; although heavily researched, it lacks that kind of rigor and perspective. The most apt comparison is probably to the unauthorized biographies of celebrities and political figures by Kitty Kelley. Howe’s guiding principle appears to be the same as Kelley’s, which is “moving an icon out of the moonlight and into the sunlight.” And like her, he has an excellent feeling for incident, a strong sense of narrative momentum, and a terrific eye for (frequently sensationalist) detail. The book is a treat for those interested in the comics industry in particular, or the publishing business in general. Howe also does justice to what a rich collection of personalities the comics field has always been. He manages the large ensemble of creators, editors, and businesspeople with remarkable skill; the people are so well particularized that they never once start blurring into each other. One can easily see the book engaging someone with little prior interest in Marvel or the business in general. One doesn’t need to know comics to appreciate Howe’s book any more than one needs to know the advertising field to enjoy Mad Men.
The first part of the book, titled “Creations and Myths” and covering 100 of the book’s 432-page text, is probably the most valuable from a historical standpoint. It’s also the best realized in terms of narrative. Howe covers a lot of territory here–he begins with founding publisher Martin Goodman’s birth in 1908, and ends with the departure of Jack Kirby, the company’s most important cartoonist, in March 1970–but his handling is clear, detailed, and well paced. He provides a succinct account of Martin Goodman’s rise from poverty to successful magazine publisher, as well as Goodman’s 1939 entry into the comic-book field with the adventures of the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and, in 1940, Captain America. The brief time Captain America creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were with the company in those days is effectively recounted. The travails of editor, head scriptwriter, and eventual company figurehead Stan Lee during the 1940s and ‘50s are as well. The so-called Marvel Age of comics, which began in the early ‘60s with the introduction of Lee and Kirby’s The Fantastic Four, Lee and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man, and other features, begins on page 36. Howe portrays the ‘60s as a whirlwind period for the company, characterized by one successful new feature after another, desperate efforts to find new artists and scriptwriters to handle the workload, and tensions over appropriate credit and compensation.
Stan Lee is treated as the central player at Marvel in the 1960s. He is depicted as having a hand in virtually everything to do with the comics being published. There is considerable controversy over whether Lee or the cartoonists such as Kirby and Ditko deserve the most credit for the features they collaborated on, but Howe doesn’t take sides. He fully acknowledges the extent of the cartoonists’ contributions due to the “Marvel method” of story creation. (Essentially, Lee and an artist would brainstorm ideas in a meeting or over the phone, the artist would then draw the story, and Lee would write the final captions and dialogue.) But Howe also makes clear that Lee was completely responsible for the editorial direction the company took. Lee is also portrayed as at least as much a workaholic as any of the cartoonists working for him. He put in seven-day workweeks, and didn’t even stop to listen to the news reports when President Kennedy was assassinated. And Howe notes that Martin Goodman didn’t treat Lee any better business-wise than the cartoonists. Kirby and Ditko are both portrayed as resentful over the lack of royalties, but Lee wasn’t happy about it, either. Goodman’s attitude was that since he had taken all the financial risk, he should enjoy all the financial benefit. Howe does a capable juggling act; his account pretty much makes the case for both Lee’s supporters and detractors, but he offers no judgment himself.
The rest of the book is probably best characterized as a juicily entertaining sprawl. One may look at the fact that sixty-odd pages are given to the key 1960s period, while over 200 are devoted to the much less significant ‘70s and ‘80s, and wonder if Howe is giving the ‘60s period short shrift. He really isn’t; the ‘60s section is just more focused and better crafted. The later sections of the book are a roughly chronological collection of company high points, entertaining anecdotes, behind-the-scenes conflicts, and creator profiles. They’re a lot of fun to read, but many feel more like draft material than things that necessarily belong in the final manuscript.
Howe is also apparently a fan of several 1970s and early ‘80s Marvel titles, such as Doug Moench’s Master of Kung Fu and Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck, and he loses all perspective when it comes to them. His discussion of the events leading up to the 1982 cancellation of Master of Kung Fu is the low point of the book: poorly researched, manipulatively written, and borderline libelous. (The passive-aggressive effort to blame Marvel for the death of artist Gene Day is repugnant.) The amount of attention given to Howard the Duck co-creator Steve Gerber is excessive, to say the least. And ironically, the most historically significant aspect of Gerber’s relationship with the company–his 1981 lawsuit to regain ownership of Howard–is only referred to a few times in passing. A reasonably detailed account would seem essential.
The lack of attention given to other things is striking as well. Conan the Barbarian, arguably Marvel’s most noteworthy success during the first half of the 1970s, barely rates a mention. G.I. Joe, perhaps Marvel’s biggest-selling ongoing series during the ’80s, is completely ignored. So is Doug Murray’s The ‘Nam, which received more mainstream press attention than any Marvel title that decade. The efforts under editor-in-chief Jim Shooter to diversify the company’s offerings, such as the Epic titles, the graphic-novel line, and Bernie Wrightson’s The Illustrated Frankenstein, are given little to no acknowledgement. Howe even downplays notable controversies, such as the problems that erupted over the ’70s change in the copyright law, as well as the conflict over the return of Jack Kirby’s original art. He did so little research on the latter that he gets the facts of its conclusion almost completely wrong.
Reservations aside, though, the post-‘60s material is a lot of fun, and in some ways just as worthwhile as the book’s opening section. The antics of the younger ‘70s-era creators, several of them recreational drug users, are fairly hilarious. There are plenty of nutty stories, such as the time an irate fan, distressed by the apparent death of Howard the Duck, mailed a duck carcass to the Marvel offices. The accounts of the office conflicts are pretty ripe, too. (My favorite was the incident in which then editor-in-chief Len Wein had to be restrained from punching out Al Landau, the company’s president during the mid-‘70s.) The terrific anecdotes and personnel profiles continue all the way up to the present day.
To sum up, Howe has put together a solid treatment of Marvel’s early period, including the key 1960s era. For the times that followed, he has gathered great raw material. As I state above, this book isn’t a rigorous academic-style history of Marvel. But it isn’t too far off, and it’s probably a lot more entertaining than that hypothetical effort. It’s a treasure trove for comics aficionados and scholars, and an engaging read for everyone else. I have my quibbles with Howe’s take on certain things, but when it comes to reading history, quibbles are part of the fun.