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Balloonless | Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

by  in Comic News Comment

During the 1960s creation of Marvel Comics, when Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko conceived the core stable of characters and the emerging shared-setting of the Marvel Universe, the line’s writer/editor/spokesman Lee created a fictional Marvel Bullpen.

Based on the crowded, raucous studio environment of the Golden Age, which Kirby actually worked in and Lee essentially interned in, Lee’s Bullpen presented he and his collaborators and employees as a big happy family, joyfully creating comics for their young readers an environment that could seem as fun as working in Santa’s workshop.

At the time of its creation, Lee’s fantasy might have been a pure invention (although later, after Kirby and Ditko left the publisher and Lee was promoted out of his hands-on control of the line, such an environment would occasionally come into existence, depending on the year, the employees and the owner at the time), but it did hint at an aspect of reality.

The characters who were making Marvel comics were in many ways just as colorful and talented as the characters starring in them; the story of Marvel Comics is at least as exciting as any story in Marvel comics. And, in a very real way, Sean Howe’s book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is probably the Marvel story of the year—bigger, more epic and with greater conflict and drama than Fear Itself or Avengers Vs. X-Men or even that billion-dollar feature Marvel Studios released over the summer … the movie’s monstrous success being what gives Howe’s book a sort of validating end-point, a raison d’etre; to both Lee’s decades-long ambition to see Marvel characters on the big screen, and owner after owner’s ambition to become very, very rich off the heroes Kirby and company created.

The complete lack of images (good thing the Marvel characters are so ubiquitous now; otherwise, a reader unfamiliar with the publisher’s wares might not even know what these guys looked like), the structure of the book and the sudden drying up of people willing to talk trash or gossip around the turn of the century attests to how excited Marvel must have been to learn Howe was writing its untold story. (Howe recently spoke with Comic Book Resources about the extensive research he conducted for the book).

Broken into five sections, Howe’s book traces the Marvel story from the Golden Age to this past spring, beginning with the childhood biographies of owner and founder Martin Goodman, Goodman’s cousin Stanley Lieber and Jack Kirby, and then basically following these key players and a few others through the history of comics.

Entire books can and have been written about Lee and Kirby and many of the other figures and events covered in the book, and, therefore, a great deal of The Untold Story is actually Retold Stories. What Howe brings to the table in the most familiar, most-written-about parts of Marvel history — the Golden Age, the creation of the Marvel Universe and its first generation of superstar heroes, Lee’s career, Lee and Kirby’s conflict, the Image founders’ defection — is context, putting these events into a single narrative and keeping the focus on Marvel and the men (and few) women who worked with and/or for Marvel.

The two meatiest sections are the 100 pages or so devoted to “The Next Generation,” chronicling the 1970s of Marvel, when Lee had to cede control to new editors, and young, new creators began building on what Lee and company had created, causing the continuity and character catalog to grow like a cartoon snowball rolling down a slope, and the 100-page “Trouble Shooter” (groan) section, detailing controversial editor Jim Shooter’s reign as the Stan Lee of the 1980s, and the many highs and lows of that period.

The other sections can feel a little glossed over compared to these, perhaps — hell, probably — because, in the case of the Golden and Silver Age areas, too many of the participants are dead, and so much of it was so thoroughly covered anyway and, by the 1990s and ’00s (The “Boom and Bust” and “A New Marvel” sections), there were simply fewer sources willing to go on the record, fewer axes to grind and, at the risk of insulting 20 years worth of creative output, too little of interest going on in the comics.

By the time we hit the ’90s, Marvel seems less like a comics publisher and more like a business, and Howe’s writing reflects the change, as the book becomes something of a business book, with the major decisions the company makes revolving around growing into other, non-comics fields.

Howe is adroit in his writing, and quite thorough in his coverage. While I was reading the final section, I remember being curious how on earth he was going to fit everything of import I knew was yet to come; by the time Joe Quesada is mentioned for the first time, on Page 392, there are only 40 pages left of the book.  And the Quesada era, and the still-new post-Quesada era, are in a way the validation of so many of the ambitions of so many of the people involved in Marvel Comics over the year. That was, after all, the period in which Marvel and comics in general really became cool and mainstream, when Hollywood started making movies, when people started making millions off of Kirby, Ditko and Lee creations, and millions started turning into billions.

I was surprised to get to the end of the book and realize Howe did indeed hit all the bases to the point I can’t fault his coverage of the past decade or so of Marvel history. But, like the section on the ’90s and the Golden Age, it does seem a great deal more cursory, and the only way to really improve on the book then would be to devote more time and more pages to these sections.

And if the worst thing you can think to say about a book is that it should have been a few hundred pages longer, well, it’s obviously a pretty good book.

I imagine many readers of this site will be familiar with a lot of the stories told in the book, and might ultimately raise an eyebrow at the Untold part of the title. But then, most of the readers of this site aren’t exactly laymen, and know their industry history and gossip about as well as they know their continuity and character bios. Actual laymen should find an incredible, at times thrilling, and all too often tragic story about an entity that was one part art and one part commerce as dozens of different men and women tried to roll it like a boulder through the past eight decades or so, some of them getting crushed underneath it.

For an expert audience like this one, I think it’s well worth noting that Howe manages an admirable sense of objectivity throughout. There are a lot of issues people have been taking sides over for years that are explored in this book, and a lot of controversial personalities.

Howe presents Lee and Kirby both as complex individuals, with faults and virtues, each of whom were sometimes right and sometimes wrong. Shooter and Bill Jemas are similarly evenly handled, and while Howe repeats a great deal of criticism of both men, their many talents and strengths also shine through clearly. Shooter and Jemas might not have always been right, but that doesn’t mean they never were, either.

Even the creators Howe lionizes, like Steve Gerber and those of his generation, the ones making comics when Howe was apparently most interested in reading Marvel comics, are presented in such a way that the arguments of those opposing them over various issues are at least understandable.

It’s not really a story of good and evil, or of heroes and villains. The heroes all have flaws and feet of clay, and the villains sometimes have a point a reader can sympathize. You know, like in Marvel’s comics.

In the tension driving Marvel, that between art and commerce, Howe clearly sides with art, but this is a book about that tension, and wherever a writer or reader’s sympathy lies, there’s no denying the tension’s existence, and it’s that which Howe concerns himself with.

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Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe, Harper, 496 pages, $27