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Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

Longbox Graveyard #69

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe arrives this week, and you should get it. The publisher provided Longbox Graveyard an advance copy for review several weeks ago (and there’s that disclosure out of the way), but even if I’d paid full boat for this book it would still receive my stamp of approval. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a terrific read, a literal page-turner that I couldn’t put down as it swept me through the glory (and failure) that as been Marvel Comics through the decades.

Author Sean Howe cites hundreds of original interviews he conducted in developing the book, but much is also based on prior publications, and to an extent the degree to which this book will prove new to you depends on your familiarity with the far-ranging books, magazines, and journals cited in the extensive end notes. For a general audience this book will prove a revelation, and even the most dedicated, broadband-equipped Marvel Comics gossip-monger is bound to discover things he didn’t know. Even for a grizzled comics fan such as your humble narrator, there was plenty of new gristle to chew upon.

Following Marvel Comics from its wartime origins with the birth of Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch; through the Silver Age explosion that brought us Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four; through the growth of the company in the direct market era and the crazy bubble of the image-driven nineties; Sean Howe takes us inside the company that has become one of the most powerful intellectual property vaults in the world.

There are booms and busts, layoffs and expansions. Time and again Marvel is saved from possible extinction by sales success of Star Wars comics, or a Kiss comic, or a reinvention of the X-Men perfectly suiting the zeitgeist. There are near-misses, too, with Marvel almost assuming control of half of DC Comics line under license in 1984 before an anti-trust suit field by First Comics against Marvel and printing partners at World Color Printing warned them off. How different might the comics world be today if Superman and Spider-Man were under one roof?

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is primarily narrative of the business and editorial history of Marvel Comics. The content of the comics themselves is not often considered, but when Howe does describe comics he walks the walk. His summary of Marvel’s greatest craftsmen is insightful and masterful: “Kirby delivered large-scale visions of awe-inspiring alien technology and brutish monsters, while Ditko depicted jittery, ambitious outcasts humbled by the consequences of their hubris and imprisoned by their own psyches,” Howe writes. “In both of their works, men endured excruciating scientific transformations and traumatic gains of knowledge that permanently separated them from the civilizations to which they’d once belonged.”

Howe delves into the mechanics of Marvel’s newsstand business, and how it drove the shape, size, and content of Marvel’s line; he looks at Marvel’s haphazard early approach to licensing characters for television and film; and he examines the parade of owners that have controlled Marvel through the years, each bringing their own (sometimes odd) outlook to what Marvel’s core business should be. It’s a publishing company! It’s an intellectual property house! It’s a front for a toy company! It’s a collectables company! It’s out of business (almost!). Along the way, readers who lived through the company’s history will get a behind-the-scenes look at what drove the content of their favorite books, learning the reasons behind sudden changes of editorial direction, and the unceremonial departure of beloved creative teams.

Where Howe is at his best is in painting a picture of the many men and women that made up Marvel through the years. The book is vivid and rich in incident, bringing Marvel’s personalities to the fore, whether it is Ike Perlmutter counting staples, Roy Thomas tacitly looking the other way while half-mad creators pushed the boundaries of the form in the early 1970s, or the angry young men of Image comics sticking it to “The Man” of Marvel Comics, only to (largely) end up becoming The Man, themselves.

Fascinating figures emerge from the narrative. Jim Shooter brings order to a chaotic Marvel, makes the trains (and the books!) run on time, and ushers Marvel through it’s first tottering steps toward becoming a multi-media conglomerate (Shooter’s Secret Wars would begin life as a focus-tested Mattel toy title). But in time his autocratic style would wear thin, and a revolt of freelancers and his editorial staff would contribute to his ouster from the company. Bill Jemas emerges as a bull-headed visionary, unafraid to slay sacred cows and enact sweeping reforms that seem substantially less radical in hindsight — such as directing the creation of an “Ultimates” comics line that would appear familiar to millions of outsiders coming to Marvel for the first time through the company’s movie success — but he too would overreach, alienating Marvel’s core audience with incendiary quotes in the press, and doing himself no favors by authoring the high-profile flop, Marville.

But if there is a central figure to this sprawling history, it must be Stan Lee. He wanders in and out of the narrative, from his origins as an office assistant and jack-of-all-trades at Timely Comics, through his ascendency as Editor-In-Chief during Marvel’s 1960s golden era, through his long and largely fruitless quest to bring Marvel’s characters to television and film, and finally to his role as Marvel’s elder statesman — grandfather, figurehead, and ambassador all-in-one.

Lee’s controversies receive fair examination, and Lee’s feuds with Steve Ditko and (especially) Jack Kirby will prove familiar to seasoned fans. Howe offers a picture of a free-wheeling collaboration between Lee and Kirby, with the two men often talking past each other — and not always recognizing each other’s strengths — with Kirby sometimes giving lip service to bull sessions with Lee, before returning home to mill out pages in isolation, turning in work that frequently had little to do with the “agreed upon” plot. Howe characterizes Kirby as a creator eager to go off on his own, and Lee as a collaborator happy to let Kirby do it, laying the groundwork for decades of resentment and misunderstanding between the men, arguing over credit and creations. In the end, Kirby was marginalized while Stan Lee, the politically-savvy Marvel insider, seemed to benefit disproportionately.

Still, Kirby is painted a bit less of the victim that other histories might have us believe. Comics pros pick up the torch for Kirby — Frank Miller is several times quoted as championing Kirby’s cause — and due exmination is given to Marvel’s petty refusal to return Kirby’s original pencil art. But the picture of Kirby that emerges is of a man who probably should have known better, who trusted others to do the right thing, who was aware of his artistry and unique talent, but was bedeviled by insecurity and his own blue-collar nature into accepting short-term money and handshake agreements. So, too, would Kirby sometimes act against his own best interests, as when he signed a deposition on Marvel’s behalf disputing claims of his wartime partner, Joe Simon, over ownership of Captain America.

Less familiar may be Howe’s look at Lee’s unhappy history with an unscrupulous internet start-up — Stan Lee Media, which drew hoots and catcalls from Marvel insiders when it failed in 2001 — or the sometimes dispiriting picture of Stan Lee wandering the Hollywood wilderness, chasing deals that came to naught, and so out of touch with the company he helped create that he needs to be briefed on the names of Chris Claremont’s X-Men. So, too, do we see a restless and unfulfilled side of Lee. Despite a career that has seen him earn millions and emerge as the beloved public face of this unique enterprise, Lee still longs for a different kind of respect, lamenting that he never became a novelist, a screenwriter, a playwright.

It is this unguarded and humanizing portrait of Stan Lee that most sticks with me from Marvel Comics An Untold Story (and most makes me wish for a thorough, academic biography of Lee). As Marvel’s mythologizer-in-chief, Stan Lee whistled up the interconnected Marvel universe, and created an image of a Merry Marvel Bullpen that didn’t (quite) ever exist, yet inspired generations of comics and media pros to follow. His chummy editorial approach made readers feel part of a club that existed only in their imaginations, but was no less real for all of that. For all his success, it is worth noting even Stan had to sue Marvel to receive many of his millions and to continue benefiting from his lifetime contract. In this, at least, Lee proved the ultimate Marvel man, equally adept at creating stories and characters as he was at securing his compensation from a company that Howe’s narrative does little to dispel as having a shabby reputation for treating creators.

There’s gossip, of the juiciest and most petty kind — probably enough gossip from the Shooter years to fill a book all by itself. Howe describes Jim Shooter burned in effigy at a party at John Byrne’s house, the effigy stuffed full of New Universe comics, a pet publishing initiative Shooter had championed. We get to eavesdrop on the fights. (Of Lee and Ditko, Howe writes “Even when they weren’t speaking, they managed to disagree.”) We see old pros like Sal Buscema and Herb Trimpe pushed around — and pushed out of the company, too. When disgruntled Marvel creators flocked to rival Atlas Comics, Stan Lee would pen a memo to freelancers extolling Marvel’s virtues in employing artists and writers and continually raising rates, while directly comparing his old boss’ new company to Nazi Germany. (And what goes around would come around, as Jack Kirby would later compare Stan Lee to the SS).

There’s a dark side to the squabbling, too, in the near-nervous breakdowns of a succession of Marvel Editors-In-Chief, and the untimely deaths of several Marvel staffers — John Verpoorten (37), Carol Kalish (36), and  Mark Gruenwald (43) — all of them stressed-out, overworked, and often in impossible middle-management positions where they absorbed disappointment from below and unpopular decrees from above.

The 1990s will make your head spin, with maneuverings and alliances formed to fight for control of a company that had been driven into bankruptcy, addicted to spiraling sales for variant covers and polybagged special editions of books printed in ever-escalating numbers. The collector-fueled frenzy climaxes with multiple versions of X-Men #1 selling eight million copies, which Howe notes was roughly seventeen copies for every regular comic book reader at that time. Howe writes Marvel had indications the bubble would burst, but could not wean itself from the short-term spikes their gimmicks were generating. The era bottoms out with Marvel’s misguided attempt to boost profits by doing their own distribution, wrecking their own business and delivering a death blow to a reeling direct market, resulting in the closure of hundreds of comics shops across North America.

There are seventies creators tripping on acid, a look at how the Spider-Man “Clone Saga” ballooned from a four-month arc to a two year saga (which saw sales dip by fifty percent), and the priceless tale of a clueless New World Pictures executive enthusing that in purchasing Marvel, they’d just bought Superman. In short, if it happened at Marvel, it’s probably here … and you should be too, if you consider yourself a comics fan.

They say you shouldn’t look too closely at the way sausages or laws are made, and if you are part of that vanishingly-small cadre convinced the Merry Marvel Bullpen was one big happy family, then maybe you should stay away from Marvel Comics The Untold Story … but I found that being reminded of Marvel’s all-too-human flaws only deepened my appreciation for the role the company played in the pop culture explosion of the past half-century. This is a brilliant book, for True Believers and non-believers alike, and I regret only that it had to end as Marvel transitions into yet another fascinating and unexpected role — as captains of the most potent action film franchise on the planet. Hopefully Mr. Howe will return to his work in due time with a revised edition to keep us up-to-date on Marvel’s evolving Disney years … and in the meantime, it is my sincere wish that he set his pen to creating an equally illuminating history of DC Comics, a company long overdue for this kind of examination.

Read this book! ‘NUFF SAID!

(Thanks again to Harpers for providing my review copy of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, and my apologies to Mr. Howe and readers of this blog for the incomplete and unedited version of this review that was inadvertently published at Longbox Graveyard last month).

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #70 Reopening The Tomb of Dracula

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978. There's a new blog every odd Wednesday at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on October 10, 2012, in Other Media and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 65 Comments.

  1. Great job on this Paul. Excellent work as always. Loved the Shooter-New Universe mention. The Jim Shooter Marvel Universe entry is a rare Gem. Feed me more!!

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    • There’s a lot of Shooter stuff in the book — I could write 2000 words on Marvel in the 1980s alone. Shooter is described as having a kind of “victory disease” where his early success with Secret Wars colored every judgment that followed, to the point that he began micromanaging his creators because the Shooter Way was the only way. He lost his creators and the knives came out for him pretty quick when he stumbled.

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  2. How good is that Spiderman vs Superman cover? Genius I say!

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  3. Wow, this look very interesting. I’d like to pick it up, but I’ll probably wait for the paperback. In looking this up on amazon, I see that there is a book titled ” The Secret History of Marvel Comics: Jack Kirby and the Moonlighting Artists at Martin Goodman’s Empire” by Blake Bell and Dr. Michael J. Vassallo due out next February.

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    • Yes, that book is on my radar, too. There’s a bit about that pre-Silver Age era in Howe’s book but I’d like to know more about when Kirby was basically drawing books all over town for publishers that are long-since gone.

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      • Men of tomorrow has strong Kirby stuff in it.

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      • “Men of Tomorrow” was as interesting as “Untold Story” in many ways, Kirby included. There is also a lot in there about Eisner and the comics art factory he ran until he decided to walk away and create The Spirit.

        A book I’d really like to see is one that focuses on the Silver and early Bronze Age told from the perspective that so many of the contributors were Golden Age artists and writers grown up. Untold Story touched on that a bit especially with Lee and Kirby but I’d like to see this concept expanded.

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        • Most of those Golden Age guys have moved on, sadly. At WonderCon last year, Mark Evanier ran a panel which he jokingly billed as the “oldest guys in comics,” and it had Marv Wolfman and J.M. DeMatties on it. They talked about meeting a lot of those Golden Age guys when they were coming up in the business.

          Aside from Russ Heath, I don’t think there are a lot of guys from that era still making appearances.

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          • Too true, which is why I’d like to see some more focus on them. I was at an Eisner Awards some years back when several of the Silver Age greats were being honored and the most common acceptance speech was that they were all happy to still be here.

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  4. excellent – I might not have known about this book; I’ve put it straight on my list to my kids for upcoming birthday

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  5. Wow, that sounds fantastic. I just might have to cave and pick up the HC; I kind of want to read this ASAP.

    Great review!

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  6. Really does sound like a page turner! Up-close and personal in the bullpen — an always quirky place.

    Really great read, too, LBG! Way.

    Really dug the Superman vs Spider-Man cover, too!

    Hope you had a great day! 💋

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  7. I’ve just finished reading this book and am going to buy another copy. Great read from beginning to end and as someone that had a professional interaction with Marvel when our company was acquired, I really got a better sense of Marvel’s earliest history, brilliant and eclectic creativity and long-suffering corporate dysfunction that I witnessed first hand in the mid-90’s. A truly great book.

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  8. It always amazes us when people seem unaware of the two Spider-man/Superman crossovers. We have both, but you know those Treasury Editions just don fit on ye olde scanner. LBG and MWSNM should do our own crossover about these crossovers if we can unearth some decent scans.

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    • Yeah, you’d need a pizza-box sized scanner to capture those Treasure Editions, wouldn’t you?

      Do you know offhand if the Treasury Editions were originally drawn at a larger scale? I expect they were composed on standard boards and then blown up for publication, in which case it should be no trick for Marvel to reprint them digitally or in standard format. They are kind of a lost part of the library.

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      • Good question. We’ll look into it. Many of the Treasury Editions contained reprints of stuff published earlier in standard size (and we’d assume drawn on standard boards.) But for original material like the Superman/Spider-man Crossover, we don’t know.

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        • Treasury Editions were drawn on the same regular boards as for standard printed comics. The main difference was that the oversized Treasury Editions format allowed for a printing close (but not exactly at) to the original art size.
          What we can see from the Herb trimpe art example is that Herb (or the guys from the production department) tapped together two third of a board on top of another one probably because they needed some room for of art correction with the lower third having to be cut and redrawn.

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      • Dig this, Paul. We saw some original Treasury Edition art for sale: a page from Herb Trimpe’s Spider-man/Hulk, drawn just for Treasury size. A little bit more research suggests the Treasury size is the same as a standard comic book page, just not folded in half. By the looks of the Trimpe art, he’s taken the standard board, turned it sideways, and drawn a full page on it. Here’s the page for sale currently on eBay as a reference:

        http://www.ebay.com/itm/Marvel-Treasury-Edition-25-page-25-art-Herb-Trimpe-/350424599521

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        • Thanks for turning that up, Mars. That page looks a little taller than the norm but I am far from expert when it comes to original comic art.

          I’d like to own a couple original pages but the prices are out of sight, and I don’t know where I’d display them in any case. I have a page or two from my own books, back in the day, and I don’t even display them — I guess I need to accelerate plans to convert the garage into a genuine secret headquarters, just so I can better enjoy my “stuff.”

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      • Hmm, I have access to a great A3 flatbed scanner but I’m not willing to flatten my beautiful Treasured copies. Send me your beaten up copies so I can rip them appart and feed up my hungry scanner!

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  9. Picking this up from the library next week — looking forward to reading. Just finished Larry Tye’s Superman “biography,” which gave a lot of inside info about DC over the decades (mostly in fighting with Siegel & Shushter), so this will fill in some of my missing Marvel knowledge.

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  10. Well, since you gave me an opening ………

    We talked a little bit about the Superman book in episode 045 of the podcast I co-host, The Book Guys Show. We even played some of the audiobook.

    http://bookguys.ca/episode-045-theyd-be-lucky-to-have-us/

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  11. 2 words: co-hosts. (it’s possible that’s only one word)

    And 2 confessions — (1) I joined the show about 15 episodes ago, so I don’t deserve that much credit; and (2) I don’t do the production. I just power up the ccomputer, plug in the headset, and yammer about books and comics for an hour.

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  12. I bought myself a copy in Hardcover, started reading and then had to travel on business and ended up buying it as an ebook so I could keep on reading. So yea, I’d agree, this is an excellent book.

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  13. I just ordered “Marvel Comics the Untold Story” along with a copy of “Hand of Fire” both in hardcover edition. I like to read hard facts.

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    • Hope you like them! I continue to believe “Untold Story” is a significant book in this field. I picked up “Hand of Fire” a couple weeks ago and have enjoyed what I’ve read so far, particularly the insight on Kirby’s 1970s work. Let me know what you think of them!

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      • Sure. I’m a slow reader, at least english-wise, but I’ll let you know. Did you read Mark Evanier’s book on Kirby?

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        • I’m a slow reader myself but found I devoured Untold Story over a single long weekend. Beware!

          I did read Evanier’s Kirby book, liked it, loaned it to a friend and never saw it again! (I can find the friend, though). I recall it was comprehensive but unapologetically favorable to Kirby — which was the whole point. Recommended.

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  14. This and Gerard Jones’s Men of Tomorrow book go hand in hand. Both are page turners that refuse to allow you to have your life back until you finish them, and they both will make you laugh, cry, and shake your head.

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    • I worked with Gerard Jones (very briefly) during our Malibu days, when he was writing Prime and I was doing some freelance editorial for the Ultraverse line. Good guy. His “Trouble With Girls” was a bright spot in Malibu’s early publishing slate.

      I need to read Men of Tomorrow. Glad that Gerard has carved out a space for himself as a comics authority. It is a path I might be wise to follow, myself.

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      • Trouble With Girls is insanely underrated. I love that title! Prime was great. Love that book. Jones also had a decent time writing Wonder Man. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was interesting. I also thought he did a good job on Justice League Europe, which had to be a thankless book to write at the time he was writing it, partly because it was on its last legs, and partly because it had Flash and Hal Jordan on the team, who had solo books, which always makes writing the team book hard.

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        • Yeah, it was precisely that conflict between the team and solo book adventures of a given superhero that Thor and Iron Man quit the Avengers back in the day (which also tells us something about how Marvel was structured, editorially, at that time). But it was a blessing in disguise, because once Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver joined the team under Cap, the book finally found its footing. Partly that was because the Avengers book could claim those characters as their own, but mostly it was because it set up internal conflict, which is the critical component of any ensemble piece.

          (Which is neither here nor there, but I do like to vapor on about this stuff).

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          • I tried to thumbs up your comment but I hit the wrong one on my phone!!!!

            I’m in favor of going on about this stuff too, and indeed that is when avengers found its way. A pal of mine in high school had a bunch of his dad’s old comics. They were readers, so we read ‘em. He had the issue where Cqp’s kooky quartet first joined together, and even as a 13 year old in the 90’s I could sense that that moment was pivotal, not just for the Avengers title, but basically all titles. No more could anyone just ignore something a hero did in another title without flak from readers. That may have spiraled out of control, but the concept is amazing and fascinates me to this very day. I love continuity, or at least the idea of it. There’s much too much nitpicking now, but the idea that something happened in book x that affects book y is awesome.

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            • With continuity we have to season to taste. The sweet spot is probably somewhere between 1950s DC and contemporary comics — I’m biased for the Bronze Age, but I think it worked pretty well in the late 70s/early 80s, before everything became holy writ (after Shooter at Marvel, and Crisis at DC). I think those events mark the pivot between the loose-but-fun continuity negotiated between editors passing each other in the hall, and the kind of top-down editorial fiat that i think (usually) works against good storytelling.

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              • I hate the rolling 10 year arc both companies insist that all their 50+ years of continuity takes place in. DC must agree! They decided if 10 years is dumb, compressing everything into 5 years must be better.

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                • If anyone had realized these silly books would still be around 75 years later, they would have adopted the open secret of the “eternal now” for their passage of time. No one really minds that Maggie has been a baby for 25 years on the Simpsons (and when it does come up, they make a joke of it!)

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                  • Rex Stout did that very well for 40 years. If you ever caught the series A&E did they adapted the stories to the time they were set in. No mention is made and it worked. But then Stout rarely used big epic plot lines that the two Comic houses force on us. He just told stories.

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                    • Sure … Spenser, Tarzan, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes — they never age, except in our minds, or the off-hand reference to events of the day (Spenser the Korean War veteran, etc.). It only becomes an issue when committed to film, and even then you can get around it by making the film a period piece, as you note above.

                      Yet comics characters must seem to age, or so we are led to believe. I blame the continuity geeks. (Of which I am one, sometimes).

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  15. Just finished this book; received it a couple of Christmases ago but only started it after stumbling upon a mention in your excellent blog. Couldn’t put it down. I grew up in the 80s and lived through and well remember much of the history, including buying things like Comics Scene (I still have the issues, they’re things I re-read when visiting my parents, where a segment of my own mammoth collection still resides).

    The thing that struck me reading the book; well, there are a few things. First, how much fun it must have been actually creating the comic books in the 60s and 70s, even with all the battles over ownership, management issues, and personality and business conflicts. Took me back to my college newspaper days, and it’s an era which can never be re-created, because everything changed once it was clear how much money there was in these things (which wasn’t clear at the time). As a big Starlin fan I knew (and have read many interviews with him) the story of his departure from Marvel, but this book really drove home how much was lost by a chance hiring or firing here or there. We could have had another year or more of Starlin Warlock stories in the 70s. We could have had Frank Miller drawing Dr. Strange. Stuff like that.

    Finally, it struck me how people’s opinions are largely formed by the pieces of history that they know, and might be entirely different with more information or a fuller piece of the puzzle. It’s easy to rip, say, Joe Quesada for something, but becomes harder when you put it in the perspective of what the company was like when he was hired. (Probably true of Jim Shooter, too.) There was good and bad with all these guys, and more often than not the worst decisions were made by people who didn’t care about the comics anyway; they were just out to get rich and get out while they could (and oftentimes did).

    The other cool thing was the little tidbits here and there that I didn’t know. I loved the cartoon “Thundarr the Barbarian” as a kid. I had no idea it was written by Steve Gerber with character designs by Jack Kirby. Now I love it even more.

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    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments!

      I will go you one better, and suggest that with comics fans (in particular) that opinions are formed even less by the history they know, than by the history they choose to believe. I’ve worked in creative industries all my adult life — over three decades now — both as a freelancer and “editorial,” so I’ve seen these Creator vs. The Man arguments from all sides, and it is difficult to construct a single, righteous narrative about how those issues might have best been handled in my own experience without a judicious editing of my timeline. In the Marvel case, the more I read and look into it, the simple creator/owner narrative that fans adopt isn’t nearly so simple as we might wish it to be … the collaborative nature of comics work and the peculiar “not-worth-anything-until-it-is-worth-everything” component of comics I.P. has created an especially fertile ground for outrage and heartbreak.

      Howe’s book is to be cherished for anecdotes and for its affectionate regard for Marvel (for the most part), but more valuable by far is its look at how the sausage is made … creators and editors alike were energetic and flawed and greedy and selfless in equal measure and in their brawling, random, short-sighted way created this modern pop culture masterpiece (and I don’t think it could have emerged any other way!)

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  16. At the end there, it really comes together that Marvel the company is a lot like its characters. Flashy and colorful, seemingly invincible on the outside, with plenty of flaws and human nature inside.
    I am adding this to my reading list for sure.
    Great review!

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    • It’s a great book … would welcome a similar history of DC, but this feels like a passion project for Howe and I doubt he will do another. Still, well worth the read.

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      • I would LOVE to see something similar about DC, from Howe or someone else. There’s been a couple Superman histories (and a forthcoming Batman one), but it’d be great if we could get a nice overview of the entire company in a similar vein as this book.

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