Marvel Comics by Sean Howe
If you’d asked me three years ago “Marvel or DC”, I would have answered, in a heartbeat, DC—after all, DC publishes Vertigo, the imprint that puts out my beloved The Unwritten, and Harley Quinn is one of my favorite comic book characters. But Gotham City Sirens tried my patience and the reboot, while letting me jump into Wonder Woman, just punched me in the gut. So I started reading Journey into Mystery and here I am, bugging people with how the Enchantress should totally be in Thor 2 or, at the very least, a joke about Loki and horses. Hence my desire to learn a bit more about Marvel, beyond some basics I already knew.
Marvel Comics tells the story of the titular comic book company, which started life in the 1940s but found its stride in the 1960s, when its characters—the Fantastic Four, Captain America, Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man, just to name a scant few—found a foothold in the American pop cultural consciousness. Everything was going right, but it couldn’t stay that way forever, and, as the company grew larger and larger, the creatives at the heart of the company found themselves facing off against management (who barely read comics, let alone understood the medium), the collapse of the comic book market, and themselves, as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby argue over who created who. I’m stealing Patton Oswalt’s joke because it’s true: if you thought the superhero fights were bad, wait ’til you see this, true believers.
I knew a bit about the history of Marvel Comics from Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics; my brother acquired it at some point, and I was drawn to the glossy pictures. (I wonder why I went to tiny, violent town on his Asterix and not this? The world may never know.) Y’know, earnest young men trying to sell comics and coming up with outlandish ideas, Jack Kirby’s linework, Stan Lee’s exuberance. But that was an official Marvel volume; what Howe is devoted to is the warts and all story of Marvel Comics. There’s the oft-focused on battle between Lee and Kirby over character ownership, but also, once the corporate ownership really kicks in, creators being pulled off of titles they’ve worked on for years or, as is more often the case, creators abandoning titles when faced with ultimatums they disagreed with. The cheerful image of the Marvel Bullpen that Lee tried so hard to maintain—it’s my main impression of that official history—occasionally came near the mark, but, as time went on and Lee distanced himself from the company to become a kind of mascot hellbent on getting Marvel into the movies, things started to fall apart. In fact, they’re still recovering.
You couldn’t ask for a better structure to a book, although Howe blows it in the home stretch by compressing the totality of the aughts into twenty or so pages. Given the focus on the nineties and the rise of people like Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane, who broke away from Marvel in spectacular bridge-burning fashion to start Image Comics, I wonder if it’s because Howe might not have access to current employees, or if because we’re all still weirded out by the fact that the aughts are behind us now. It’s almost compulsively readable; the sections covering the sixties and seventies are particularly good, capturing the joys, artistic heights, and frustrations of Marvel as it gets bigger and better. It’s not the definitive history of the company. I think that’s yet to be written. But it is a particularly game and well-researched try.
However, for a book about the history of one of the biggest comic book companies of all time, whose fandom is currently in one of the largest booms I’ve ever seen, it really doesn’t like comic book fans. It’s heartbreaking enough to see Lee, who is one of the most adorable old men in the world, talk about how he wishes he could have been a screenwriter or a novelist instead of a comic book man, as well as hearing Chris Claremont, the man who poured his soul into the X-Men franchise for years, dismiss anyone who enjoys fantasy as physically or mentally deficient. But there’s a balance in the writers, editors, and artists discussed; for every jerk like Quesada (a man who mocked fans while peddling pin-ups to them), there’s someone like Kirby, whose words on the potentiality of comics are beautiful. But to see Howe himself doing it is just off-putting and confusing, especially given that the main market for this book will probably be Marvel fandom. He pokes fun at zines and, at one point, actually calls adult comic book fans “aging obsessives”. He even ends the book with a few words on how comic book narratives, by their own endlessness, are ultimately unfulfilling. It’s a concept I agree with—if you have to put the toys back in the box the way they came, you have to find other means of growth—but to leave it there and not interrogate it feels so basic, especially when mainstream discussion of comics has improved so much in the past few years. Yurgh.
If you want to test the waters yourself, Grantland has an excerpt up.
Bottom line: While the definitive history of Marvel Comics is yet to be written, Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics is a well-researched and game try. Too bad it really doesn’t like comic book fans…
I received this free review copy from the publisher.
Marvel Comics will be published on October 9th—tomorrow!