Comic book fans are going to have a love-hate reaction to Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. The stories behind the creation of Marvel’s iconic characters and their various reboots and reincarnations over the decades are fascinating, compelling reading — who would ever think up a character as ridiculous as She-Hulk, and why? — that deepen your enjoyment of the medium and impart a glow of pulpy nostalgia.
But Howe also reveals the cutthroat nature of the industry, the way publishers exploited writers and illustrators and how management responded to the ebb and flow of sales figures, sometimes to disastrous results.
This exhaustively researched book begins shortly before a teenage Stan Lee joins the company that would eventually become Marvel in 1939 and ends with the film adaptation of The Avengers breaking box office records around the world. In between, we get a revelatory history of the inner workings of a company that often teetered on bankruptcy, spawned storylines and images that became iconic fixtures of popular culture and harbored more in-fighting and squabbling than every episode of the entire Real Housewives franchise combined.
Readers who know the difference between Iron Man and Iron Fist and can rattle off the artistic contributions of John Byrne, Chris Claremont and Jim Starlin will derive the most enjoyment from this fast-paced book, which is stuffed with bits of trivia and information that will be new to all but the most hardcore devotees. For example, in the 1970s, the Black Panther was briefly renamed the Black Leopard to avoid any association with the activist group, and Peter Parker’s Aunt May was destined to die in order to invigorate the slumping sales of The Amazing Spider-Man, until art director John Romita came up with the ingenious and controversial decision to kill off his girlfriend Gwen Stacy instead.
Almost every page of Howe’s book contains similar behind-the-scenes tidbits. But even if you don’t care why someone thought a roller-skating disco queen named Dazzler would make a good superhero, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story still fascinates as a study of a company that grew from humble roots into an enormous enterprise that spilled over into every conceivable branch of entertainment and marketing — TV, movies, books, video games, toys and fast-food tie-ins.
Lee, the 90-year-old godhead of contemporary geek culture, went from reinventing the superhero genre with characters such as The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man to working as a buffer between the corporate suits and the gifted writers and artists whose work led the company to dethrone longtime champ DC Comics as the king of the industry.
For better or worse, Lee became the public face of Marvel, which resulted in fractious relationships with the former friends and co-workers who had made immeasurable contributions to Marvel’s success (most notably Silver Surfer creator Jack Kirby, whose fallout with Lee is recounted in detail). By the late 1970s, Lee seemed to be more interested in the next step of his career than he was in the fate of his stable of characters. As Howe quotes Lee from a Circus magazine in 1978: “I should have gotten out of this business twenty years ago. . . . I would have liked to make movies, to be a director or a screenwriter. . . . I’d like to be doing what I’m doing here, but in a bigger arena.”
The irony, of course, is that the comic-book industry would explode in the 1980s in popularity and critical respect. Howe delves into some of the best-known story arcs of the period, such as the Dark Phoenix saga in The Uncanny X-Men, which had become one of the company’s flagship titles. After issue #137, the finale of a story that had been developing over four years, had been drawn, editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, whose reputation for overruling writers and artists was legendary, saw the pages and demanded the ending be changed and heroine Jean Grey be killed. The issue became a classic.
That’s one of the book’s countless examples of how an industry that from the outside seemed freewheeling and daring suffers from the same restraints and ego-clashes as any other business. Howe’s comprehensive scope extends to the competitors that sprung up in the late ’90s such as Image Comics, founded by former Marvel artists who were fed up with how they were treated. The author also rehabilitates the somewhat-tarnished image of Lee, rendering him as a man who was constantly trying to grow the business without forgetting the reasons for its success. But what ultimately propels you to keep turning the pages of this fat, enjoyable book are the endless anecdotes about how the Marvel Universe was shaped — and how many different gods played a hand in its creation.
Rene Rodriguez is The Miami Herald’s film critic.