Friday, June 7

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (Harper, 2012)

By Sean Howe

Although I have always been an avowed partisan of DC Comics, I inevitably go through my phases of reading and even collecting various Marvel Comics – most notably from about 1975 through the early 1980s when I was as rabid an “X-Fan” as you'll ever find, and in more recent years acquired a deepening fascination with the wild innovation of the first decade or so of “Silver-Age” Marvel in the 1960s – and I have a more-than-passing familiarity with the basic continuity of that comics Universe itself as well as the history of the comics company throughout its now seventy-plus years. But I'd never, until now, read such a systematic, albeit idiosyncratic, narrative of the full history from beginning until virtually the present as appears here. Howe writes a fascinating story that strips away many of the myths, digging beneath the facade of the “Merry Marvel Bullpen” (to whom he dedicates his work) to reveal the usually less-than-attractive reality of competing creative personalities and interests as Marvel has come back repeatedly from disastrous implosions of its own making and recently transformed into an explosion of multimedia domination.

Inevitably, the most intriguing part of Howe's account for me is the period that I most directly experienced, coinciding roughly with the heart of the “Bronze Age” of the 1970s through mid 1980s, when my enthusiasm for the “All-New, All-Different” X-Men led me into many other corners of the Marvel Universe. The latter half of that period coincided with the first half or so of Jim Shooter's controversial tenure as Editor-in-Chief, giving Howe his title for the middle part of his book (the third part of five), “Trouble Shooter.” My interest in this period was rekindled in the past couple of years by my regular reading (until it went more or less inactive about a year or so ago) of Shooter's own blog (link). I figure it is a testament to Howe's objective presentation that I cannot decide if his treatment is pro- or anti-Shooter. Were I forced to take a stand, I would say “anti-,” but that probably just reflects the massive and acrimonious criticism and very personal hatred (no, that is not too strong a word!) that Shooter drew and upon which Howe's account is based.

Continuing to highlight nuggets that struck me as particularly interesting, I found it amazing how many of the Marvel stories that I read and, of course, perceived only the surface of, could also be read as allegorical accounts of editor-writer-artist interaction. Most notably, “The Korvac Saga” in The Avengers:

'His position was unique,' the captions in Avengers #175 confided to the reader. 'He would be free to make subtle alternations in the fabric of reality, eventually taking control – and correcting the chaos, healing the injustice that civilization had heaped upon a battered universe.'

But the suspicious Avengers attacked Korvac, tragically preventing his more eradicating the world's cruelties. 'I was in the unique position to alter that, to bring all of existence under my sane and benevolent rule,' he told the super-team. 'I am a God! And I was going to be your savior!' Where others saw megalomania, Jim Shooter saw a beleaguered hero who only wanted to bring order to the galaxy” (p. 214).

as Shooter had, indisputably, brought order to the Marvel Bullpen – and earned their hatred for it.

Jumping out at me since I heard Chris Claremont's account of his final days on X-Men back in the early 1990s (in his answer to my friend's question at Comicpalooza [link]), was a decidedly different tone conveyed by the rather cursory account given here. Perhaps the passage of time has cooled what comes across here as the culmination of a growing hostility between his editors and the long-time writer of Marvel mutantkind who had understandably developed quite a proprietary sentiment toward “his” characters.

In the penultimate “Part IV: Boom and Bust,” as corporate interests increasingly outweighed creativity, corporate and editorial control coupled with the gimmicks of the early 1990s read hauntingly similar to what is going on currently at DC Comics, and I fear that the ultimate result will be much the same. Due attention is given to DC's “Death of Superman” event of 1992-1993 bursting the “Collector Bubble,” but it seems clear from Howe's account that Marvel Comics and the maverick artists who broke away to create Image Comics were instrumental in creating the bubble in the first place. Many of the same names appear as are now in charge of DC Comics, most notably Bob Harras who oversaw the disastrous “Heroes Reborn” to which the “New 52” DC “nottaboot” is oft compared. Harras is nonetheless portrayed as a victim of higher corporate forces beyond his control.

There is much else of interest throughout this book, including the long-running disputes over who exactly “created” the core Marvel characters who exploded upon the world in the early 1960s, and here as in other comics histories Stan Lee comes across as very different from the ebullient enthusiast for Marvel Comics and the medium in general that is his public persona. It's ironic that, save for a black-and-white reproduction of a Golden-Age (ca. 1940) announcement of Marvel Comics “Now on Sale 10¢,” which appears opposite the title page, the single illustration within the pages of this book is a small black-and-white photograph of smiling “Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1965” that appears opposite the last page of text. By that point, even the reader who may have started this book with no knowledge of comics history knows how staged and ultimately false was the facade of the “Merry Marvel Bullpen” to whom Howe devoted his book.

Thanks for reading.

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