Saturday, August 2, 2014

Book Review: Marvel Comics :The Untold Story

Book Review: 'Marvel Comics: The Untold Story' by Sean Howe

5 / 5 Stars

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story first was published in hardcover in 2012; this Harper Perennial trade paperback version (483 pp) was published in 2013.

The book opens with a familiar anecdote: it’s 1961, and in an office building at 655 Madison Avenue in New York City, Stan Lieber, 38 years old, sits at a desk in a neglected corner of the offices of Martin Goodman’s Magazine Management Company.

Lieber, who uses the pen name Stan Lee, is contemplating quitting his job. Only a decade earlier he had been supervising a large ‘bullpen’, or staff, of artists and writers who made up the very profitable Timely comic book publishing wing of Magazine Management. But now, in the aftermath of the anti-comic book crusade of the mid-50s, he supervises a handful of freelancers – among them Jack Kirby and Stan Goldberg – who illustrate a thin lineup of cornball monster comics, and ‘Millie the Model’. 

One of the writers for True Action, one of Goodman's 'men's magazine' titles, is a man named Mario Puzo. He regards Lee with a mixture of pity and amusement; Lee is the company's lone, forlorn 'funny book' guy.

Martin Goodman tells Lee that DC comics has recently had considerable success with rolling out its superheroes in a team-based format called The Justice League of America, and suggests that Lee try something along the same lines for Marvel comics. Lee consults with his wife, who urges him to give the comic book scene one last try before bowing out. So an energized Lee conceives of a group of superheroes that suffer from all manner of human foibles and conflicts, enlists Kirby to supply the art, and in the Fall of 1961, with a cover date of November, the first issue of The Fantastic Four hits the stands.

The reaction from readers is immediate and positive: letters come into the Magazine Management office praising the Fantastic Four, and asking for more. Lee and Kirby, heartened by the response, embark on what would be a remarkable enterprise in comic book creation, one that would forever change the industry, and by extension American pop culture. Lee and Kirby would make Marvel the number one publisher of comic books, and the owner of some of the most profitable licensed properties in film history.

MC:TUS tells the story of Marvel from its beginnings in 1939, with the publication of Marvel Comics No. 1, up until 2012. Its pages are filled with anecdotes and reminiscences and insider gossip, which makes this one of the best books – if not the best book – I have read so far this year.

One thing author Howe does very well is illuminate the business decisions and conflicts that, to date, have been covered in only a superficial manner, as in (for example) Les Daniel’s 1993 coffee-table book Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics

As Howe relates, due to the work-for-hire policy that governed Marvel, those who, like Kirby, created best-selling characters were solely dependent on company largesse if they hoped  to receive any financial rewards other than their base salary. And Marvel's management had no qualms about behaving nastily towards former employees; Howe describes how Marvel ignored Kirby's repeated requests to return some of the 8,000 pages of original artwork he had provided to the company. Marvel claimed that it was having trouble locating the artwork, even as some of those pages were showing up for sale at conventions.

Howe also reveals how unprofitable the comic book industry was, until the direct sales market matured ca. 1979 – 1980. Prior to that time, Marvel was resigned to selling only one of every three comic books it produced. The company was often at the mercy of distributors, some of whom would simply let stacks of comics lie fallow in their warehouses, before tearing off the covers, submitting them for credit, and then selling the cover-less comics for a 100 % profit.

Howe also provides a clear and engaging narrative of the great comic book boom of the early 1990s, a time when fanboys and speculators shelled out their dollars to buy ‘special edition hologram cover’ issues of Spider Man or X-Men, sure in their assumptions that in just a few years, they would be able re-sell the book for hundreds of dollars. 

The magnitude of the damage the great comic book crash that started late in 1993, and continued well into the early 2000s, did to Marvel was a revelation to me: mass-firings and title cancellations reduced the company to a shadow of its former self. 

When veteran artist and freelancer Herb Trimpe, who I well remember as the illustrator of the Incredible Hulk comics of the early 70s, found his title cancelled, he tried to find a substitute: 

No matter what I say or who I call or write at Marvel, I can't get assigned to another book. I've tried reason, outrage, guilt trips and begging. Nada. I haven't been able to scrounge together enough work to meet my monthly quota. The place [Marvel] is a shambles. When I press, they admit sales are down and so is morale. The scuttlebutt is that more layoffs are coming.

Along with layoffs, employees had to put up with the penny-pinching, grasping management of Marvel owner Isaac Perlmutter, who castigated employees for not recycling paperclips, of for not turning off their office lights if they were to be out for more than 5 minutes. 

Today, of course, Marvel has recovered, and earns considerable revenue from the films and tie-ins featuring its characters (although I was stunned to learn that the company earned only $25,000 from the very first Blade movie, which earned $70 million for Warner Bros. - !). 

I don't think I've bought any new comics from Marvel since Marvel Zombies Supreme (2011), the lame final installment in the 'Zombies' franchise. But I do continue to buy graphic novels of Marvel's comics from the 70s and 80s, as well as back issues of Epic Illustrated and the Epic imprint comic books.

Whether you’re a current Marvel fan or someone who read them back in the day; a fan of comics in general; a fan of American pop culture; or someone who is interested in the business aspects of comic book publishing and print media, MC:TUS is well worth getting. I give it an unequivocal 5 stars.

1 comment:

david_b said...

It was a pretty impressive book, in terms of the business side of Marvel and it's woes, ever-changing Bullpen, editors-in-chief, etc..

What's frustrating is it occasionally dips into great tories about creators (Gerber, Starlin, others getting creative juices from wicca and eastern beliefs, lysergic acid, etc..) and their more abstract creations (Doctor Strange, Howard the Duck, to name a few..), some Bullpen ego stories, dope in the hallways, but then as it starts to get interesting, you slip back into 'revenue-business stories' again.

Much like the 'Live From New York' quasi-tell-all SNL book where everyone chimes in on their takes of certain events, most fans would appreciate more of a book like that, where Marie Severin, Brunner, Conway, Gerber all provide entertaining, revealing anecdotes about deadlines, who created what, dealing with Kirby, Steranko, Shooter, etc, back in the Silver/Bronze Age years..

As a fair-share have already left us, we should get as much information from the survivin' Marvel creative staff as we possibly can.

To me that would be a more revealing, entertaining book to the hearts and minds of Marvel Comic enthusiasts, perhaps a worthy sequel to this generally-awesome read.