Review

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

by Sean Howe

Comic books were arguably the most important part of my childhood, a period that stretched from approximately 1959 to 2000. Back in the day, as they say, you could trot down to the local drugstore with three or four dollars every week and come away with 20-30 comics, enough to last until the following week when you could do it all again. I cannot always remember appointments without calendar prompts, but I can recall exactly where I bought certain comics (The Incredible Hulk #4 at Culter’s Drug on Lane Avenue in Upper Arlington, The Amazing Spider-Man #6 at Gray Drugstore on West Market Street in Fairlawn) and recite certain pieces of dialogue word for word.

"While the history would be interesting in any event, all credit goes to Howe, not only for his research but also for his presentation. His breezy narration picks the reader up and moves things right along, making even the more technical aspects of the intellectual property and company ownership disputes as interesting as they are ultimately tragic and bittersweet."

My favorites were published by the Marvel Comics Group, which took the concept of the super-hero, made it relevant for the real world, and lifted the veil a bit as to the individuals involved in the creation and production of what was to become a cross-cultural American mythos that endures to this day. MARVEL COMICS: The Untold Story, goes back --- way back --- into the history of Marvel, opening that veil and revealing a warts-and-all portrait of its creators and company, cheerful public face, and angry private (and later public) squabbles. It is indispensable reading for anyone who has ever bought a comic on the newsstand, read a graphic novel, or watched a super-hero movie.

The product of exhaustive research, the book takes readers into the back rooms --- seedy or first-cabin, depending on the industry’s fortunes at the time --- where ideas took form and icons such as Marvel’s Captain America, the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner were created and have endured to this day. The end of World War II also signaled a gradual downturn in the comics market; it was a four-color depression that continued into the early 1960s, when a comic veteran named Stan Lee turned the world upside down with artist Jack Kirby, another veteran of the sequential art wars. Lee broke the “fourth wall” of comics, listing story credits (though in some cases, the imagination in the credits almost equaled those of the story) and addressing the readers directly, urging each and all to “Face Front!” and exhorting everyone with a catch-all, upbeat “EXCELSIOR!”

Marvel itself, however, was little more than an umbrella covering a group of intellectual properties. It was owned by a much larger house with a varied assortment of newsstand products, most notably men’s action magazines (which, uh, also had an important role in my childhood). The book exhaustively covers what has occurred behind the scene, as well as the scene itself: changes in ownership, editorship and the creative team; lawsuits (virtually everyone --- from Stan Lee to Jack Kirby to other noteworthies, major and minor --- have spent time in the courtroom over intellectual property they created); and the waxing and waning of the industry in general, which included Marvel’s bankruptcy in the 1990s and its resurgence after 2000.

I have made the observation elsewhere that the comics industry seems to run on a 20-year cycle, rising in the even decades and falling in the odd. The history documented here seems to support this somewhat, though Marvel’s acquisition by Disney may break the “bust,” to some extent. But what is perhaps most fascinating about the history that Howe presents is the manner in which a few gentlemen in the early 1940s, sitting around a table, created a group of characters who have become household names around the world.

While the history would be interesting in any event, all credit goes to Howe, not only for his research but also for his presentation. His breezy narration picks the reader up and moves things right along, making even the more technical aspects of the intellectual property and company ownership disputes as interesting as they are ultimately tragic and bittersweet. I advise you see movies like Iron Man, The Avengers and Thor, and then read this book.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 12, 2012

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story
by Sean Howe

  • Publication Date: October 9, 2012
  • Genres: Nonfiction, Popular Culture
  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0061992100
  • ISBN-13: 9780061992100