On Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, by Sean Howe

Sean Howe begins his history of Marvel Comics in 1961 with publisher Martin Goodman ordering Stan Lee to produce a knock-off of rival DC’s new and successful Justice League of America. As Howe puts it, Lee’s “mandate” was to “steal this idea and create a team of superheroes”, and that’s exactly what happened. Right from the beginning of the comics industry, Goodman’s MO had always been to jump from one trend to another, opportunistically exploiting the innovation of others with a flood of the cheapest possible product before moving on, and on, and on.  Yet the profoundly disillusioned and fundamentally bored Lee took Goodman’s diktat and broke with the bottom-feeding cycle of creatively moribund, exploitation kid’s comics. Instead, he and his artistic collaborator Jack Kirby effectively high-jacked what was to become the Fantastic Four as a means to express their own artistic ambitions. As such, the comic was from the off anything but more of the same, and beyond the fact that it starred a group of super-people, it bore little resemblance to the Justice League at all. A fundamentally different kind of superhero comic, it was far darker in tone and often considerably more intense than just about anything the cape’n'chest insignia brigade had ever seen. With its plots driven by soap operatic degrees of conflict and tragedy matched to phenomenally inventive and powerful visual storytelling, the Fantastic Four was soon a hit, and Goodman could start to exploit his own company’s achievements. More than that, Lee and Kirby’s work began to suggest that the superhero comic could be considerably more than just a socially scorned method for separating easily-distracted children from their dimes.

It’s an often told story which Howe summaries well, and it’s worth repeating here because the writer smartly uses it to emphasise how Marvel was quite literally born from the conflict between profit and self-expression. Flick forward 440 pages or so and Howe’s account of the Marvel of the 21st century shows that that conflict’s been definitively resolved in favor of  the company’s corporate owners. Many of the original creators of the intellectual property that’s the Marvel Universe – such as artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko – had swiftly found themselves enmeshed in disputes over artistic freedom and due credit, royalties and ownership. In the post-Millennium period, as Howe tells us, “those (creators) who fared best were those who held no illusions about the relative priorities of commercial viability and personal expression”. When Howe quotes film producer Avi Arad explaining that it’s the comics responsibility to serve Marvel’s merchandising interests, the reader’s left in no doubt that today’s superhero universe is first and foremost an expression of corporate interest.

The myth that Marvel could be anything but has been a long time dying. Even now, the company often attempts to spin a modern-era take on Lee’s unique brand of all-for-one, more-bang-for-your-buck hucksterism. Marketing Marvel as a family and recasting the company’s consumers as a community was one of Lee’s most brilliant innovations. It combined with the illusion that Marvel’s books would become ever more ambitious and entertaining, and created the sense of a world which didn’t just distract the reader, but represented them too. In that, the company offered not just entertainment to its diehard followers, but the vague and compelling sense of an alternative society. One day, the most gifted and fortunate of fans might even be able to move into the temple itself and contribute their own talents to the cause. The ethical standards espoused by Marvel’s costumed adventurers combined with Lee’s depiction of the company as an Utopian employer to create a  deeply attractive and almost counter-cultural sense of a better world. To come across that brew at a susceptible age was to run the risk of developing not just a deep attachment to Marvel’s products, but to the very idea of the publisher itself.

But as Howe emphasizes, there never was a Bullpen composed of a joyous, united host of inspirational artists and writers. Though there were brief moments when the perceived interests of finance, management and creators appeared to coincide, the clash between ownership and individual creativity soon re-emerged. Caught for a moment in the Sixties between the two sides, Lee is shown repeatedly opting for the self-interest of service to the company rather than any more Utopian values. Though quite rightly deeply respectful of Lee’s achievements in the early years of the Marvel era, Howe appears to have no doubt that the man himself was only too happy to leave both comics and the interests of his fellow creators behind as he maneuvered himself out to the media promised land of the West Coast. Time and time again, Howe portrays the essential discontinuity between what Marvel appeared to stand for and how it actually operated. Creative talent is constantly shown to have been treated carelessly, callously and even maliciously. The way in which Lee’s earliest and most brilliant collaborators such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were exploited is perhaps a despairingly familiar business to many. Yet the capacity of the various and often-changing powers-that-be at the company to screw over its employees emerges as shocking even to those who’ve spent years – perhaps even decades – following such matters. To know of the many and various acts of  irresponsibility, parsimoniousness, abuse, deception, power-mongering and stupidity is one thing. To read of one such an act after another is to feel an ever-darkening sense of futility and despair. Certainly anybody convinced that businessmen and the managers they appoint are by their very nature ethical and efficient servants of the greater good ought to be presented with Howe’s work. Perhaps nowhere is the sense that all but the lucky and powerful few were always doomed to an unhappy end at Marvel is summed up in the following quote from Chris Claremont. Once the darling of the company for the way he raised the X-Men from a low-selling also-ran to a property capable of generating tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, Claremont eventually found  himself exiled from the very books he helped to make so much of;

“I recall seeing (Superman creator) Jerry Siegel, then working as a proofreader, hustling around the office and trying to get writing jobs. I said to myself, I’m never going to be one of those guys. Now I look on the stands and see comics of all these characters I created, and Marvel won’t let me write them.”

It is more than possible to read Howe’s book as a record of how a set of uniquely valuable properties were finally delivered into profitability. To those not of a bent to celebrate corporate accumulation as an end in itself, Marvel Comics The Untold Story offers an account of how the Lee-proclaimed House Of Ideas has been run not just heartlessly, but all-too-often incompetently run as well. Yet none of this is to say that Howe has produced a Manichean account of Marvel’s history which unconditionally celebrates the talent while denigrating the management and the owners. Those at the top of the tree aren’t always portrayed as capitalism’s running dogs, while those toiling over typewriters, drawing boards and computers are often portrayed as dopey-headed and cruel-hearted themselves. Editors from Roy Thomas through Archie Godwin to Mark Gruenwaldand Joe Quesada are portrayed with a considerable degree of respect. And though Jack Kirby is always treated with both admiration and sympathy, the author is always careful to show that the King himself was at moments capable of compromising behavior. Similarly, if Howard The Duck creator Steve Gerber is often used to represent the artist whose rights have been trampled upon, then his serious problems with deadlines and an unfortunate deception of editor Tom Brevoort in the 1990s aren’t skirted over either.

Admirably, Howe’s tendency is always towards a measured and verifiable account of what the fights were about and where the bodies were buried. His triumph is to synthesize a huge amount of printed material, supplement it with a mass of original research and then lay out each innovation, fight, achievement, back-stab, breakthrough and screw-up one after another in an ultimately heart-crushing sequence. He may not rant, spit and stab like a great many dedicated and disillusioned fanboys would have, but that just makes his evenly-expressed work all the more powerful and damning.  For those of us who grew up swallowing the myths of the all-for-one Bullpen and associating our own youthful lives with the values of Marvel’s various superheroes, Howe’s work, in all its sympathy and balance, can be a distinctly uneasy read.

Given how much ground the writer sets out to cover in this single volume, it seems churlish to quibble about what does and doesn’t appear in the book. Some may feel that he ought to have taken a more openly polemical approach, while others might bemoan the fact that this is a record of how a business developed far more than a detailed record of its products. Caught between the needs of the outraged loather of the company and the rumpishly partisan reader, Howe’s book can often seem to be skating across events which demand a greater degree of attention. To my mind, I wish there’d been even more time invested in issues such as the representation of minority groups both in the comics and the workplace. (There’s nothing here that matches Christopher Priest’s account of what working for Marvel as a Black creator could regrettably involve, for example.) But the greatest weakness in what’s often a fine history is Howe’s coverage of post-Millennium period. The years following the departure of Bill Jemas in 2004 is covered in just 8 pages, and the impression that’s given there is of a company which has, for all of the challenges before it, resolved the tension between the artist and the company. Yet there’s been a series of stories in the period since in which creators have expressed disappointment at the degree to which management is determining the content of their work, the most recent of which has come from the departing Greg Rucka. And when Howe argues that today’s “writing and art work … is … more sophisticated than ever before”, the problems associated with the likes of deconstructed storytelling, Event marketing, editorially mutton-headed decisions, the lack of political engagement in the comics, and the failure to reflect much beyond a narrow niche of white readers all disappear in a generally optimistic glow. There’s certainly no trace of the content of the stories which have appeared in 2011 on Bleeding Cool and The Beat concerning the apparently savage and capricious financial restraints which afflict the company and many of its employees in a year in which its products have generated hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue.

Despite that, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a substantial, equitable and thoroughly enjoyable if rather depressing read. It certainly lays out the human cost of Marvel’s current commercial well-being as a generator of massively lucrative copyrights. But it also celebrates both the best of the company’s comic book achievements and the most gifted of the women and men who created, edited and marketed them. But in the end, what it leaves the reader with is a clear sense that capital if not commercial wisdom has tended to win out at the cost of the very thing which once made the company so vital and influential. The priority given to the preserving of intellectual property for exploitation in other media means that the superhero tale has remained at heart a deeply conservative sub-genre. The brief moment of radical innovation which resulted in Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four sparked off the Marvel Revolution of the early Sixties, but it soon became an example of what not to do. “Publishing was where it all started, and it was a great source” declared Avi Arad, “But the big deal for the company was merchandising …”. Lee, Kirby and Ditko’s revolt swiftly collapsed into style, into Lee’s infamous “illusion of change”. Few creators are brilliant enough to make something truly worthwhile of a story whose events will almost inevitably be cancelled out in the eventual back-to-basics reboot. Marvel was born out of radical change, but now most of the creative energy invested into it goes towards ensuring that its products seems to be daring and innovative while rarely being anything of the sort. Those few writers, artists and editors who do succeed in producing remarkable work under such constraints deserve a substantial degree of respect for their achievements.

To arrive at the black and white photograph of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby laughing together in 1965 which so pertinently closes the book is to feel a terrible sense of loss and betrayal. Both men are formally dressed and yet they appear quite relaxed if not somewhat refreshed. Kirby’s hand rests on Lee’s left arm as if he had just one more thing to say, but for all his good cheer, Lee appears to have eyes only for the camera. It’s enough to make the reader wish that they didn’t know what was to come for the relationship between the two men, or of how little substance the myth of the House of Ideas ever truly held after its first few years of existence.

* “Despite what the publishers say, their  interest in the talent is minimal now, the interest is only in promoting the financial worth of their properties” (from CliNT, October 2012).

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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