Even the truest of True Believers will uncover something new about Marvel Comics’ lore in Sean Howe’s recently released unauthorized history of the publisher, “Marvel Comics: The Untold History.”
The book begins before the debut of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s “Fantastic Four,” the title comic historians cite as the beginning of the Marvel Universe, and leads straight into the billion-dollar acquisition of the publisher by Disney in 2009. Howe assembles 50-plus years of Marvel history and turns it into a page-turner following the many creative legends and editorial staff who built and shaped Marvel throughout the decades. In addition to the obvious triumphs, there’s also no shortage of disappointment and heartbreak that happened in the House of Ideas over the years.
Howe spoke with CBR News about the extensive research he undertook while writing the book, including his “exclusive correspondence” with the reclusive Steve Ditko, the legend of Stan Lee and the “lost” Marvel stories he discovered.
CBR News: You talk about your own personal history with comics and your love of the medium in your last book, “Give Our Regards To The Atomsmashers!” but what was it about Marvel that stood out from the rest and set you down the road to writing “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story?”
Sean Howe: It was the big over-arching story that connected everything in a Marvel Universe. There was something that was kind of irresistible. It really hooked you in; if you were reading Spider-Man, it was hard not to know about who the Hulk was. Whereas you could read Superman, and be in this kind of little insular universe of its own. With Marvel, it was like you were being whisked through a magical door to a flood of colors and characters.
To try to convey this to non-comics readers, I say, “Imagine if ‘Lost’ or ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘Mad Men’ aired for seventy years, every week, and every character got their own spinoff show, and that aired every week for seventy years as well.” You just become consumed by this vivid, mysterious, imaginary world. I think that mythos was what stood out for me about Marvel.
When you first started kicking around ideas for the book, was this 50-plus-year definitive history what you had planned?
I think that the more I learned about the creators, the more I realized that, in the same way the X-Men have a 50-year ongoing legacy of story, the stories of the creators themselves are sort of all tied into this one continuum. There is something that connects the experiences of Jack Kirby and Steve Gerber and Frank Miller, and so there’s sort of a shadow history. There’s a fictional character history, and there’s the behind-the-scenes history, which is also a tradition of sorts. A lot of that gets passed on from generation to generation.
Just in terms of the way the creators relate to the process of contributing to the grand narrative and always having to cede control at some point. It’s kind of like they throw their ideas into it, and the ideas kind of move along on this giant river. You know what I mean? It’s something that’s sort of become bigger than the individual people, in a sense. That over-arching narrative I mentioned earlier has a profound impact on the relationship between artist and corporation.
In the cadavre exquis nature of the collaborations, people build on top of each other’s works and then pass them along to the next in line, and it all ends up belonging to the company in the end. The story of Marvel has a lot to tell us about the way we create, sell and consume art. “Pop culture” is such a fascinating mix of contradictions, and creative urges and commercial forces are very seldom a happy marriage. This is, of course, true for any mass entertainment, from arthouse films to hip-hop, but in the case of Marvel Comics, the tensions are exacerbated by the weird industry traditions of corporate ownership.
When you were reading those old Marvel comics as a kid, was there an equal interest in the people behind the scenes, making the comics?
Absolutely. If you read about the Bullpenners when you were a kid, you sort of thought of them as this extended family. Like Stan Lee becomes — he almost feels like your uncle, you know? And you recognize his warm voice when you watch a cartoon and hear his narration and he tells you you’re a True Believer. There’s something where he becomes, I think for a lot of people, a comfortable presence. And when you start to learn that the real life stories of the Bullpenners aren’t exactly that way — it’s like finding pictures of extended family you never knew existed. Like finding a stash of your grandmother’s old love letters, or something.
There was obviously a lot of research that went into this book. Was it harder digging up some of the older material, or the more recent Marvel history?
There’s no way to get the same level of candor from people when you talk about the current business, and that’s part of the reason I felt like the book shouldn’t try to bear down quite as hard on the last few years. I think that this history can’t really be told without a little distance. I think also, the success of the “Spider-Man” movie really began a new era of what Marvel means, and that’s why the book really finds its climax, to a degree, with the beginning of its Hollywood romance.
There’s room for a sequel, one day, when that history can be told a little more freely. It’s natural that people who are still working in the business don’t want to go on record about the current business that they work on, especially when they’re forced to sign legally-binding non-disclosure agreements at every turn.
There are two conflicts that seem to crop up in each era of Marvel history; the quest to license Marvel comics — especially in film and TV — and also the creators’ rights battles. How do you see both of these conflicts in the Marvel-Disney era?
I think that the Hollywood side of things is pretty well nailed down. I don’t see a reversal of fortune for Marvel Entertainment any time soon. In some way, that’s probably a good thing for comic book industry. I kind of wish that the actual comic book artform could enjoy more of the financial success and not just the trademark characters that everybody’s exposed to. It’d be great if everyone was actually reading comic books, as well. There’s a tendency to reduce Marvel to its intellectual property, its characters, when in fact even superhero comic books are not just about the superheroes.
There’s a very legitimate artform at play, and just because someone has seen the movies and the t-shirts doesn’t mean they’ve gotten a very good glimpse into what makes the artform important.
In terms of creator rights, I think people go into work-for-hire with much clearer vision these days. And so, there’s less room for kind of the heartbreak that Jack Kirby, for instance, suffered. You’re seeing a lot of creators, like Ed Brubaker, deciding they don’t want to put their efforts as much into work-for-hire. But this seems to be more of a pragmatic, less emotional, decision, because people know now what they’re getting into. I don’t really make any judgment against people doing work-for-hire — but it should be clear that that’s what it is.
You can make arguments, if you want, about the negative effects of the early-90s comics industry, but the fact that Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld and all those other guys struck out on their own — I think that was really an important step forward. It was something done out of self-interest, it wasn’t necessarily something that was intended as an act of generosity, or something that they did for the rest of the world of comics creators — but it was a courageous thing that they did, and it paid off.
There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes players I had no idea about before I read the book. Carol Kalish was someone who was pivotal to the direct market, and who met a very sad end. Is there anyone else you wish you could have talked to or spent more time with?
There was a ton of people I wish I could’ve talked to, or in some cases, spoken to more. I had a great three-hour conversation with Jim Shooter about his early days as Editor-in-Chief with the idea that we would talk again, but I could never get a response from him after that. I would’ve loved to gotten more of his responses to other employees’ impressions of Marvel at the end of his tenure.
The main thing I would wish for was a time machine, to have spoken to so many of the people who died 20 or 30 years ago. If someone had written this book in 1980, we would have had Jack Kirby’s participation. You would have Martin Goodman’s participation. You would have artists, like Don Heck, who were very infrequently interviewed. And then there are bullpen guys like Morrie Kuramoto, who was working at Marvel in the ’40s and was there, for the most part, until the ’80s. Think about the stories he could’ve told.
There were a lot of guys like that, who were really kind of the heart of Marvel Comics, in a way. A lot of old-school New York guys, who read their racing forms and ordered their sandwiches from the deli downstairs and took the train back to Queens and listened to baseball games on the radio. They couldn’t be further from the attentions of the fanboys, but they were the guys getting the comics out.
There was one person in particular who was obviously hard to get ahold of who played a huge role in the early days of Marvel: Steve Ditko. How’d that go?
I sent a letter and he wrote a postcard back, which I posted on my Tumblr site, and jokingly trumpeted as “My Exclusive Correspondence With Steve Ditko.”
It was as much of a response as I could have hoped for, really, and I respect his right to privacy. But the truth is, he’s written a lot of essays about, say, the creation of Spider-Man, published in a series of low-print-run pamphlets that are not readily available. If he really wanted to get his side of the story out in the world, talking to journalists would be a pretty helpful move in that direction. History is largely written by those who speak to historians, you know?
He won’t answer questions as basic as, “Why did you quit Marvel Comics in 1966?” It’s obviously up to him — but it makes it harder for his side of the story to be fully represented.
Now that the book is out, what’s the response been like? Especially from people that used to work at Marvel?
The response has been really, really positive. I’ve heard back from several people who were there for 20 years or more, and I’m relieved to hear them say that it captures a time and they think it’s a very balanced look. That certainly makes me happy.
It’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like if some outsider came and wrote about someplace I worked at for many years. I used to work at the Criterion Collection, and I remember reading an article about Criterion in Wired Magazine. It was a fine article, but it still seemed so foreign to my experience, in a way, you know what I mean? When you live daily with something, it’s hard to capture that as a 500-page book. It’s obviously a simplification — a huge simplification.
But there’s still depth to everyone featured in the book, especially Stan Lee, who is so central to Marvel. Some people might not see him as being much different from his “Mallrats” cameo or his Bullpen Bulletins caricature, but in the book, there’s a solid look at his varying degrees of involvement in Marvel over the decades, as well as his complicated relationships with Kirby and Ditko —
Yeah, I think Stan Lee — his public image is so burned into our brains that I think that a lot people, in both positive and negative ways, have assigned him a very simplified role, whether they think that he’s the guy who created all the Marvel characters singlehandedly, or they think that he is someone who simply ripped off artists and took the glory. Both of these are wrong.
If you made a comparison to filmmaking, you could probably say that Jack Kirby was the director of the films he and Stan Lee made together. He was a visionary. His ideas worked on a grand, ferocious scale. He did the heavy lifting of the plotting, and as the artist, he laid out the way the story was told, and controlled all the visual elements.
On the other hand, Stan Lee was not just an incredible editor — he was Marvel’s default art director, he was the talent scout, he wrote sparkling dialogue and he was a world-beating spokesman. He was tenacious. He worked at Marvel from the age of nineteen to the age of seventy-five, and tirelessly promoted not just the company but the medium as well.
Have you heard from Stan Lee about his reaction to the book? Do you know if he’s had a chance to read it?
I don’t know. I imagine he has not. But I don’t know — his Twitter account follows me, so maybe I’ll get a direct message from him!
There’re so many discarded or abandoned Marvel-related projects that never happened that are mentioned in the book, like Stan Lee’s “The Monster Maker” movie, Steve Engelhart’s proposed storyline for Doctor Strange, “The Occult History of America” —
Oh, yeah, I would’ve loved to have read that whole storyline. I forget about that, actually, when people ask me about my favorite “lost” Marvel projects.
Although Clea actually did sort of get together with Ben Franklin; that part of it was published. [in Doctor Strange vol.2 #18]
What would’ve been at the top of the list, that you wish you could’ve seen happen?
I think Frank Miller’s “Doctor Strange,” in the early ’80s, would’ve been pretty incredible. He was just going to be the artist, with Roger Stern writing it. Or how about when Stan Lee tried to recruit Kurt Vonnegut and Vaclev Havel and Anthony Burgess to write comics? What if Jack Kirby had been given the reins on “Silver Surfer” when it launched? The mind kind of boggles at that. I would’ve loved — loved — to have seen that.
It’s not quite a direct response to your questions, but just imagine if Jack Kirby had worked out a deal with Marvel that both sides were happy with. Whether or not he was going to write his own stuff — even if he teamed up with Steve Gerber, for instance. That would be have been pretty tremendous. What I think about is if people had stayed around.
Can we look forward to lots more updates to your Tumblr?
There are definitely a few things I’m looking to getting out in the world. There are also some documents I don’t feel comfortable putting out into the world. But the reaction’s been really great. I’m glad people are interested in not just the crazy panels from the 1970s, but the stuff that’s about the comics history — the Stan Lee discussion from 1971, where he talks about how the publishers are not being fair to creators, is, I think, an amazing record.
Was there anything weirder than finding that naked Stan Lee photo?
Here’s the crazy thing about the Stan Lee photo: I knew about that [photo] session, and the photographer told me he’d lost his copy, but later I actually found that photo on the internet. Some obscure German website promoting the recent Stan Lee documentary put it up. So who knows? It actually may have come from Stan Lee’s archives.
That radio interview featured in the book with Jack Kirby — where Stan Lee surprises him to wish him a happy birthday — was super-uncomfortable to read. Was it just as painful to listen to?
That conversation brings out a whole range of emotions in me, as, I’d guess, it did for the participants. In the course of researching the book, I was lucky to come across a number of verite audio documents, like Stan Lee announcing to an audience of college students in 1966 that Ditko had left “Spider-Man,” or talking about his frustration with work-for-hire in 1969. There’s even a great 1960s radio conversation in which Lee and Kirby discuss the way they collaborate. But that “Happy Birthday” exchange has the added charge of surprise — Jack certainly wasn’t expecting to hear from Lee, and you can hear in his voice that he’s simultaneously rattled and a little bit touched. It’s exactly the jumble of contradictions you might expect from the Kirby and Lee relationship.