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

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

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Comments

13 Comments

That was a fine review, Caleb. I’m sure for me it will be “re-told tales” for the most part, like you say, but I’ll read it anyway for whatever new tidbits I can gleam.

Have you read “The Comic Book Heroes”, by Jones & Jacob? That’s my favorite history of comic books, with a lot of great stuff about Marvel, as well as the other publishers. Of course, for fascinating tales of the Golden Age, Steranko’s two volume History of Comics can’t be beat.

I just bought Two Morrows’ book “Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour” and that looks like I great history book to read tonight!

Almost finished with this book and I’m sorry to see it ending. I’ve really enjoyed the book and though I knew alot there was a lot I didn’t know. I worked in comics retailing during the early 90s and never imagined that much money was out there, and that some of the writers at Marvel were making the bank they were. And I wasn’t aware of the inner politics that occurred during this period and later into the 2000s.

I think Howe has done a superb job and I’d love to see similar books on DC, Valiant and Image.

I finished it a few weeks ago. I recommend it.

good review, I’ll probably read this at some point.
You mention one thing I’ve read in a lot of reviews for the book: the fact that is crams the last decade into just a few pages.
I think you made a good guess at why–people not willing to talk–but don’t forget, just like a comic book or comic-movie, you have to have a sequel these days, and I bet those 40 pages will expand 10X if this tome sells well enough for the follow up.

I’m up to the early 80s in it and I never want this book to end. Its such a great read.

Any chance he could do one for DC also?

I read the book and was bummed when it ended as well. It’s funny because I was introduced to the 70’s era of Marvel via my older brother’s collection. I became a fan and buyer in my own right with G.I.Joe. I quit in my when I was in my early 20’s during the early 90’s. I read those chapters and realized that I wasn’t growing away from the books that I enjoyed at the time, they were just getting bad.

You describe a parallel experience to mine Shawn although it was my older cousins rather than brother who introduced me to Marvel comics and I started collecting in the 70s. However I also quit in my early 20s and skipped until the mid 2000s. Looking back at what I missed it looks like a lot of landfill was produced in that time period. Not that there aren’t some gems to be found, but overall it’s a lot of god-awful stuff. From reading the Untold Story I have the impression Marvel lost its creative compass in that period.

I just liked the backstabbing. Even the “good guys” could be ruthless in getting what they wanted. And while I sympathize with the many artists and writers who got screwed over in terms of royalties and creative freedom, it’s a forced sympathy because some of them just seemed like they couldn’t or wouldn’t move on from their let downs, nor would they learn their lessons. I guess it’s all part of being human.

I rarely Make Mine Marvel anymore only because they aren’t putting out books I’m interested in (and when they do, I can’t afford them!) but this book solidifies my love for the company, warts and all. The Untold Story is Mad Men for geeks.

IF this is the book a fellow fan at a comic shop told me about, that gets into Gerbers big fight over Howard, i have to get a copy! Lee did a truely great job,in crafting an image of the marvel bullpen as a big friendly clubhouse, compared to dc.They would print letters that dc,would never print.Marvel was cool for collage students to read,as far back as the fall of 65,if not earlier.

Finished it. Recommend it. That Gerber battle is my favourite part of the whole book. I had no idea of how cleverly Gerber ‘ended’ that. I won’t spoil it for those who may not know but its just classic. The best underdog victory ever.

Damn you Caleb for doing such a great review! Now I’m going to have to buy it! *grumble grumble* Goodbye money!

There already is a book like this for DC comics.

Men Of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones.

Though it doesn’t go all the way to modern times, and includes a lot of other comics publishing from the begining of comics as well, it is primarily about the creation and creators of Superman and DC comics.

I just finished this a few days ago. Amazing book! Highly recommended. As a child, reading tons of comics in the 80’s, I could have cared less about the goings on behind the scenes. But as an adult, hearing about all the Jim Shooter stories and whatnot, it’s great to be able to read about it and put it all into context. Great runs on all these comics, and then you step back and read about the various creators and what they went through, it’s pretty interesting. We’re all tied closer to creators these days with internet and twitter, etc… but back then, not so much, so it’s great to read about it all.

And yes, the more ‘modern’ stuff of Joe Q on is pretty short, but like the reviewer said, the meat and potatoes are from silver age to 80’s/early 90’s, which is what I was most interested in anyways.

Also great to read about how things REALLY were in the ‘bullpen’ way back when, between Stan & Jack, and Stan and Steve Ditko, etc… And how all his life Stan wanted to run the Marvel movie show, and when it finally came about, he’s relegated to just a small cameo, and sometimes the bulk of those are even cut.

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