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Avengers Infinity War: The Bride of Ultron

Longbox Graveyard’s run-up to Avengers Infinity War continues with today’s look back at one of my favorite classic Avengers tales — The Bride of Ultron!

Avengers #161

Jim Shooter’s Avengers are best remembered for the Korvac Saga, but my personal favorite portion of Shooter’s run is this two-part story from Avengers #161-162. Featuring rich characterization, explosive action, and extraordinarily tight pencils and powerful visual storytelling from artist George Perez, these issues represent the soul of late-1970s Avengers.The 1970s were a golden age for the Avengers. The brand had not yet been diluted by West Coast Avengers or today’s endless spin-off books, and with only one place to go for Avengers action, Marvel lavished the title with their top talent. The decade began with Roy Thomas’ Kree-Skrull War, and continued under Steve Englehart in a series of stories that would test the Avengers both without and within. The era would conclude with a Roger Stern/John Byrne run where the Scarlet Witch would start to show some of the awesome power (and instability) that would later haunt her in Marvel events like The House of M.

Jim Shooter’s editorial reign at Marvel remains a controversial period, but there’s no disputing that Shooter was a superior comic book writer. A genuine savant, Shooter began his career at the tender age of thirteen, writing and drawing for DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes, which he would write through that book’s mid-1970s signature run. With Legion, Shooter demonstrated that he could handle ensemble stories that were rich in complicated backstory — skills that would serve him well in this tale of fathers, sons, and Oedipal yearnings.

The action kicks off in issue #161’s “Attacked By The Ant Man!” where Hank Pym has evidently suffered some kind of mental breakdown, accusing the present-day Avengers of being imposters attempting to replace the original vintage versions of those characters, who had first come together with Ant Man to form the team in the pages of Avengers #1.

Avengers #161
The fight is on! This being a Silver Age-style Marvel comic, our heroes solve their differences by beating the tar out of each other, showcasing Shooter and Perez at the top of their game. Perez orchestrates the visually-complicated team fight with relish, while Shooter demonstrates his deft touch with expository dialogue — making sure that readers know who each character is, and making clear why a seemingly-insignificant character like Ant Man poses a threat to earth’s mightiest heroes. In the span of four perfect panels, we see how Ant Man can summon a swarm of ants to do his bidding; how those ants exploit Iron Man’s weakness by flooding through the eye-slits of his mask; and how Ant Man retains enough of his full-sized strength to clout Captain America on the jaw.

Avengers #161

Shooter isn’t content just to recycle old tropes. After making clear that the Vision’s powers are based on making himself insubstantial, he follows up with a power trick (never used before or since?) where the Vision defeats a swarm of ants with an electrified shock. But that does nothing to stop Ant Man from taking out a pair of Avengers with his patented, grow-suddenly-to-full size sneak attack, expertly set in motion by Perez’s pencils. Part of Shooter’s ethos was to make sure that any readers picking up a comic for the first time would not be completely lost, and this awkward speaking of characters’ names and out-loud restating of action and results is part of that agenda. But it also serves to provide a verbal, character-driven rhythm for these stories, where even veteran readers had something to see, nodding along as familiar characters behaved in believable ways. It’s the kind of storytelling that comics can do especially well, and a strength of the form that is rarely used by current creators. Likewise, having characters speak aloud their internal monologues and footnote the uses and limitations of their powers would never wash on film, but when well-executed in a superhero comic, it is pure four-color fun.

Avengers #161

Here Shooter employs his mastery of backstory, rooting Hank’s breakdown in the character’s checkered history. Madness isn’t too much to expect of a character who’s brain has been stressed by a career filled with growing and shrinking powers, and poor Hank has had breakdowns and multiple personalities in his past.The timely arrive of Hank’s wife — Janet Pym, the Wasp — allows the Avengers to get the upper hand, and take stock of what drove Hank off his nut.

Avengers #161

Even a transitional scene affords room for Shooter to provide characterization. Here we see the Beast — having only recently joined the team — struggling to fit in with the rest of the Avengers. The Avengers, of course, take all of this in stride, and quickly act to help their fallen friend.

Screen-shot-2013-03-23-at-12.21.51-PM

Looking back on these tales, of course, we know that they are Ultron stories, but at the time, his reintroduction was a bit of a shock. His appearance was hinted-at in the preceding issue #160, but Ultron had been out of action since taking a powder in Fantastic Four #150, three years before. That’s a long time for a Marvel super-villian to stay on the bench. While making an indelible mark in his introduction arc circa Avengers #55, I’d argue that it is in these Shooter/Perez stories (which would continue in Avengers #170-171) where Ultron became an A-list Marvel bad guy.

Avengers #161, Ultron

It’s perfectly appropriate for a megalomaniacal rage case like Ultron to state his name during his dramatic entrance (which again helps new readers), and in the fight that follows demonstrates through action the villain’s extraordinary strength and the invulnerability granted by his adamantium body. Iron Man gets humiliated a second time, having cleared those ants out of his helmet only to have his transistors drained by the bad guy. Again we see Shooter’s touch with exposition, leaving no doubt about how Ultron has felled Iron Man.

Avengers #161

Round One to Ultron!

Avengers #161

It is in issue #162 that the emotional undercurrents of this story are fully realized, as we learn of Ultron’s scheme. Ultron’s plan is deeply disturbed, and revolves around deceiving his creator/father, Hank Pym, into working his will …

Avengers #162, Ultron

Hank’s brains are still too scrambled to see what is coming, but certain of the Avengers begin to entertain dark concerns.

(And as an aside, I think Perez proves himself an especially great Iron Man artist in this issue — I feel like I can see my own reflection in Iron Man’s face plate thanks to the way Perez draws the character).

Avengers #162

Meanwhile, back at Ultron’s secret lab, Hank abets his monstrous creation in draining the life force from his own wife, Janet (who by extension is Ultron’s mother!) into the unnamed shell of Ultron’s intended bride. This is the first appearance of Jocasta, a largely-forgotten part-time Avenger who would go on to feature in some pretty decent comics in this era.

Avengers #162

But by investing his affections in this mechanical obsession, the previously-impervious Ultron also inherits a liability. His love of his bride makes Ultron vulnerable in new and disturbingly-human ways — a weakness Iron Man is quick to exploit.

Avengers #162, Ultron

It is a mean-spirited way to defeat a villain — a point Shooter skillfully drives home when Black Panther later admonishes Iron Man for attaining victory in such dishonorable fashion — and the Avengers don’t seem to win this battle so much as they attain a temporary reprieve. Ultron quits the field but this conflict is far from resolved.

Avengers #162, George Perez

This two-issue tale has plenty of loose ends … but they’re the right kinds of loose ends, deliberately-unresolved plot threads designed to bring you back the following issue. Hank Pym is still insane, and no one is sure what to make of Jocasta, who as the final panel of this issue indicates played a pivotal-but-secret role in defeating Ultron. How will Janet Pym react to having part of her life force drained into a mechanical being? As far as our heroes are concerned, Captain America, the Beast, and the Scarlet Witch are all dead. Ultron is still on the loose. There’s even a subplot featuring Hawkeye and the Two-Gun Kid (!) that is ready to boil over!

A great Avengers run lays just over the horizon, and these issues are a great place to jump on board. You can get each of them in decent condition for just a little bit more than a contemporary comic book, which is a bargain for a pair of the most iconic Avengers stories ever published. These issues are also a part of Marvel’s growing digital library. They may be non-canonical, insofar as the movies are concerned (where it is Tony Stark — and not Hank Pym — who conceives of Ultron), but they remain among the finest Avengers comics ever published. Excelsior!

This article originally appeared at Stash My Comics.

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The Bride of Ultron

Longbox Graveyard #146

Welcome back to The Dollar Box, where I look at single issues and short runs of comics with a cover price of a dollar or less. With the Age of Ultron dawning in theaters this week, I thought it a good time to revisit this classic Ultron story from the pages of Avengers #161-162.

Avengers #161

But in between was a two-year run helmed by Jim Shooter, where he brought his finely-honed Silver Age sensibilities to Marvel’s premiere superhero team. Shooter’s Avengers are best remembered for the Korvac Saga, but my personal favorite portion of Shooter’s run is this two-part story from Avengers #161-162. Featuring rich characterization, explosive action, and extraordinarily tight pencils and powerful visual storytelling from artist George Perez, these issues represent the soul of late-1970s Avengers.The 1970s were a golden age for the Avengers. The brand had not yet been diluted by West Coast Avengers or today’s endless spin-off books, and with only one place to go for Avengers action, Marvel lavished the title with their top talent. The decade began with Roy Thomas’ Kree-Skrull War, and continued under Steve Englehart in a series of stories that would test the Avengers both without and within. The era would conclude with a Roger Stern/John Byrne run where the Scarlet Witch would start to show some of the awesome power (and instability) that would later haunt her in Marvel events like The House of M.

Jim Shooter’s editorial reign at Marvel remains a controversial period, but there’s no disputing that Shooter was a superior comic book writer. A genuine savant, Shooter began his career at the tender age of thirteen, writing and drawing for DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes, which he would write through that book’s mid-1970s signature run. With Legion, Shooter demonstrated that he could handle ensemble stories that were rich in complicated backstory — skills that would serve him well in this tale of fathers, sons, and Oedipal yearnings.

The action kicks off in issue #161’s “Attacked By The Ant Man!” where Hank Pym has evidently suffered some kind of mental breakdown, accusing the present-day Avengers of being imposters attempting to replace the original vintage versions of those characters, who had first come together with Ant Man to form the team in the pages of Avengers #1.

Avengers #161
The fight is on!This being a Silver Age-style Marvel comic, our heroes solve their differences by beating the tar out of each other, showcasing Shooter and Perez at the top of their game. Perez orchestrates the visually-complicated team fight with relish, while Shooter demonstrates his deft touch with expository dialogue — making sure that readers know who each character is, and making clear why a seemingly-insignificant character like Ant Man poses a threat to earth’s mightiest heroes. In the span of four perfect panels, we see how Ant Man can summon a swarm of ants to do his bidding; how those ants exploit Iron Man’s weakness by flooding through the eye-slits of his mask; and how Ant Man retains enough of his full-sized strength to clout Captain America on the jaw.

Avengers #161

Shooter isn’t content just to recycle old tropes. After making clear that the Vision’s powers are based on making himself insubstantial, he follows up with a power trick (never used before or since?) where the Vision defeats a swarm of ants with an electrified shock. But that does nothing to stop Ant Man from taking out a pair of Avengers with his patented, grow-suddenly-to-full size sneak attack, expertly set in motion by Perez’s pencils.Part of Shooter’s ethos was to make sure that any readers picking up a comic for the first time would not be completely lost, and this awkward speaking of characters’ names and out-loud restating of action and results is part of that agenda. But it also serves to provide a verbal, character-driven rhythm for these stories, where even veteran readers had something to see, nodding along as familiar characters behaved in believable ways. It’s the kind of storytelling that comics can do especially well, and a strength of the form that is rarely used by current creators. Likewise, having characters speak aloud their internal monologues and footnote the uses and limitations of their powers would never wash on film, but when well-executed in a superhero comic, it is pure four-color fun.

Avengers #161

Here Shooter employs his mastery of backstory, rooting Hank’s breakdown in the character’s checkered history. Madness isn’t too much to expect of a character who’s brain has been stressed by a career filled with growing and shrinking powers, and poor Hank has had breakdowns and multiple personalities in his past.The timely arrive of Hank’s wife — Janet Pym, the Wasp — allows the Avengers to get the upper hand, and take stock of what drove Hank off his nut.

Avengers #161

Even a transitional scene affords room for Shooter to provide characterization. Here we see the Beast — having only recently joined the team — struggling to fit in with the rest of the Avengers.The Avengers, of course, take all of this in stride, and quickly act to help their fallen friend.

Screen-shot-2013-03-23-at-12.21.51-PM

Looking back on these tales, of course, we know that they are Ultron stories, but at the time, his reintroduction was a bit of a shock. His appearance was hinted-at in the preceding issue #160, but Ultron had been out of action since taking a powder in Fantastic Four #150, three years before. That’s a long time for a Marvel super-villian to stay on the bench. While making an indelible mark in his introduction arc circa Avengers #55, I’d argue that it is in these Shooter/Perez stories (which would continue in Avengers #170-171) where Ultron became an A-list Marvel bad guy.

Avengers #161, Ultron

It’s perfectly appropriate for a megalomaniacal rage case like Ultron to state his name during his dramatic entrance (which again helps new readers), and in the fight that follows demonstrates through action the villain’s extraordinary strength and the invulnerability granted by his adamantium body. Iron Man gets humiliated a second time, having cleared those ants out of his helmet only to have his transistors drained by the bad guy. Again we see Shooter’s touch with exposition, leaving no doubt about how Ultron has felled Iron Man.

Avengers #161

Round One to Ultron!

Avengers #161

It is in issue #162 that the emotional undercurrents of this story are fully realized, as we learn of Ultron’s scheme. Ultron’s plan is deeply disturbed, and revolves around deceiving his creator/father, Hank Pym, into working his will …

Avengers #162, Ultron

Hank’s brains are still too scrambled to see what is coming, but certain of the Avengers begin to entertain dark concerns.

(And as an aside, I think Perez proves himself an especially great Iron Man artist in this issue — I feel like I can see my own reflection in Iron Man’s face plate thanks to the way Perez draws the character).

Avengers #162

Meanwhile, back at Ultron’s secret lab, Hank abets his monstrous creation in draining the life force from his own wife, Janet (who by extension is Ultron’s mother!) into the unnamed shell of Ultron’s intended bride. This is the first appearance of Jocasta, a largely-forgotten part-time Avenger who would go on to feature in some pretty decent comics in this era.

Avengers #162

But by investing his affections in this mechanical obsession, the previously-impervious Ultron also inherits a liability. His love of his bride makes Ultron vulnerable in new and disturbingly-human ways — a weakness Iron Man is quick to exploit.

Avengers #162, Ultron

It is a mean-spirited way to defeat a villain — a point Shooter skillfully drives home when Black Panther later admonishes Iron Man for attaining victory in such dishonorable fashion — and the Avengers don’t seem to win this battle so much as they attain a temporary reprieve. Ultron quits the field but this conflict is far from resolved.

Avengers #162, George Perez

Unlike most of the stories I review at The Dollar Box, this two-issue tale has plenty of loose ends … but they’re the right kinds of loose ends, deliberately-unresolved plot threads designed to bring you back the following issue. Hank Pym is still insane, and no one is sure what to make of Jocasta, who as the final panel of this issue indicates played a pivotal-but-secret role in defeating Ultron. How will Janet Pym react to having part of her life force drained into a mechanical being? As far as our heroes are concerned, Captain America, the Beast, and the Scarlet Witch are all dead. Ultron is still on the loose. There’s even a subplot featuring Hawkeye and the Two-Gun Kid (!) that is ready to boil over!

A great Avengers run lays just over the horizon, and these issues are a great place to jump on board. You can get each of them in decent condition for just a little bit more than a contemporary comic book, which is a bargain for a pair of the most iconic Avengers stories ever published. These issues are also a part of Marvel’s growing digital library. They may be non-canonical, insofar as the movies are concerned (where it is Tony Stark — and not Hank Pym — who conceives of Ultron), but they remain among the finest Avengers comics ever published. Excelsior!

This article originally appeared at Stash My Comics.

NEXT WEEK: #147 Top-10 Super-Dogs!

A Secret Wars Apologist

Longbox Graveyard #99

Mark Ginocchio from a recently redesigned Chasing Amazing is back! You might remember him from his two-part look at the Top 10 Spider-Man Battles (Part 1/Part 2). While Mark normally blogs about his affection for all things Spider-Man at Chasing Amazing (and has even started talking about the “Wall Crawler” on the Superior Spider-Talk podcast), Longbox Graveyard is delighted to welcome him back to write about the larger comic book universe. This week, Mark shares his thoughts about the grand-daddy Marvel cross-over event of them all, 1984-85’s Secret Wars series. Take it away Mark!

Living in and around New York City for my entire life has made me elitist about certain things … and I hate that. A few weeks ago, my wife and I caught a Saturday matinee of the Broadway revival of the musical Pippin. Upon getting out of the theater, I found myself mumbling and cursing the Times Square crowd under my breath. Really, you’re going to stop foot traffic to look at a cowboy in his underwear? Really, you flew in from Europe just to see the Lion King on Broadway when there’s a dozen other quality shows that are dying on the vine right now due to lack of sales? (No, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark is not one of those shows that I sympathize with).

I hate that I’m like this, because the same kind of snobby elitism has been used against me and my love of certain things in pop culture. In the case of my comic book fandom, that would mean my adoration of Marvel’s Secret Wars series.

Secret Wars Heroes

Published in 12 issues between 1984 and 1985, Secret Wars is considered to be the comic book industry’s first true “event,” pitting all of Marvel’s A-List heroes against an assembly of (mostly) A-list villains in a fight to the “death” on another planet that’s simplistically dubbed “Battleworld.” The series is the brain child of then-Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, certainly one of the industry’s biggest lighting rods, with pencils courtesy of Mike Zeck and Bob Layton.

Secret Wars villains

The series is largely considered a joke and a gimmick by anyone who calls themselves a serious comic book aficionado and with good reason – Marvel folks have been unashamed in the fact that the whole event was created to help market a line of action figures designed to compete with the “Distinguished Competition’s” Legion of Super Heroes line. With toys being the driving force behind the series, the plot is mostly flimsy and the characterization of some of Marvel’s most beloved heroes and villains is often quite puzzling. So you would think a guy who pens a column on the internet called “Gimmick or Good” would just rightly dismiss this series and instead focus my energy on the plethora of great comics that were released in the 1980s.

But I can’t do that. I love this series.

Secret Wars #1

Never underestimate the power of a child’s rose-colored glasses. First, let’s talk about those action figures. I owned them all as a kid and my mother still has my “black suit” Spider-Man figure sitting on the windowsill in her kitchen as a joke after finding the toy buried in the backyard many years ago (I must have been recreating the events of “Kraven’s Last Hunt”). Last year, while watching an episode of AMC’s Comic Book Men and seeing Secret Stash store owner Walt become child-like with glee when a vintage Marvel World board game came into his store, I started to openly reminisce to my wife about the Secret Wars figures. I knew whatever wasn’t buried in the backyard was probably buried in my parent’s basement, and I was likely to never see them again. A few months later for Christmas, the first series of the action figures was waiting in my stocking. My wife found a used set on eBay – surely not for collectors. But I was ecstatic regardless because a piece of my childhood had been preserved.

SecretWarsFigures

But beyond toys, the series defined the Marvel Universe for me. As a (very) young child, these were some of the first comic books I ever purchased. Yes, my ownership of Secret Wars even predates my first copy of Amazing Spider-Man, which as many of you will note, is my ultimate obsession in the comic book universe. It was from these comics I was able to identify all of Marvel’s heavy hitters: Captain America, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Hulk, the X-Men (the REAL X-Men, i.e. Wolverine, Storm, Cyclops, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Rogue and Professor X), Doctor Doom, Magneto, Kang, Doc Ock, Ultron, etc. etc. etc. While I’ve read and enjoyed some DC stories throughout my lifetime, I have always been firmly entrenched in the “make mine Marvel” camp, and Secret Wars is almost entirely responsible for instilling that affection at an early age.

Yes, when re-reading the series today, there are plenty of cringe-worthy moments. Shooter’s choices for some of the characters border on downright bizarre in sections: does the Wasp survive a near-death experience and really complain about her hair and make-up? Did She Hulk just say “tubular?” And why is “Rhodey” Rhodes (filling in for Tony Stark as Iron Man) getting all “what do you mean you people” with everyone?

Secret Wars Wasp

Every issue is basically just building up for another confrontation between good and evil. Having Doom eliminate a character as awesome as Kang via Ultron so early in the series is questionable. The Lizard’s presence is a flat-out mystery to me. Was he even a featured Spidey villain during this time? Having Ultron get so easily manipulated by Doom is also disappointing.

Secret Wars battles

Irrelevant. The fights are fun and everyone gets their moment, whether it’s Hulk holding up an ENTIRE MOUNTAIN to save his teammates, or Spider-Man outfoxing the X-Men who operate as a pseudo-rogue third party based on how the heroes mistrust the “mutants.” On the villains side, watching all of these immense egos try to get along is more entertaining than any season of the Real World. Plus, as the series goes along, it becomes perfectly clear that this is Doom’s story, and considering I find Doom to be one of the most compelling villains in comics, I’m alright with that.

Secret Wars Hulk

There might be some panels where there’s just too much going on – too many people – for the art team to effectively draw, but Zeck creates three unquestionably iconic covers in the series’ first, eighth and tenth issues. Other artists continue to homage these covers to this day, which is always the ultimate testament to an illustration’s influence.

And despite the fluffiness of the series, there are a few moments that have gone on to have a long-term impact on the comic book industry. At the end of the series, The Thing, who has mysteriously been transforming back and forth between his rockman persona and Ben Grimm, decides to hang back on Battleworld to figure some stuff out, leading to a period of Fantastic Four where She Hulk is the fourth member. We get the first appearance of the second Spider Woman, Julia Carpenter, who also happens to have “nice legs” per the data collected by Rhodey’s Iron Man technology (or maybe that was just his own observation).

Secret Wars SpiderWoman

But more than anything else – and of course as one of the web’s biggest webheads you know I would zero in on this – the series’ eighth issue marks the official first appearance of the alien symbiote. While it initially looked like this moment was just another gimmick to get Spider-Man in a svelte black costume (complete with action figure), the symbiote would later be used to create one of the most significant entries to Marvel’s rogues gallery over the past 30 years – Venom.

Secret Wars 8cover

Yes, as I’m sure most members of the cult of symbiote know, Venom’s first appearance wasn’t “technically” Amazing Spider-Man #300, but rather Secret Wars #8. I did in fact own this issue as a kid, but read it into a non-collectible pulp. I haven’t picked up a replacement issue because I’m more focused on using my (limited) financial resources to finish out my run of Amazing Spider-Man, but mark my words, I will come to own a nice copy of Secret Wars #8 at some point. It’s a must own for any fan of Spider-Man or Venom.

Secret Wars Spiderman

So, just like it’s futile to tell an NYC tourist to not waste their time and money staring at wax figurines at Madame Tussauds (and seriously, why are you eating at a TGIF’s when you’re in the culinary capital of America?), don’t expect to ever get me to change my opinion on Secret Wars. You’d essentially be arguing with a five-year-old, which is analogous to my mental state of comic book euphoria every time the words “Secret Wars” are so much as whispered around me.  The series is just a demonstration of how hopelessly subjective our opinions about comic books can be.

Thanks to Mark for this week’s blog! Be sure to visit him at the all-new Chasing Amazing!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: It’s my big anniversary issue … #100 Top Ten One Hundreds!

The Bride of Ultron

The Bride of Ultron

The Avengers face off with Ultron in April’s Dollar Box column over at StashMyComics.com.

Avengers #162, George Perez

Ultron is presently staring in the Age of Ultron comics event — but he wasn’t always an A-List Marvel supervillain. Ultron’s introduction during the classic Roy Thomas/John Buscema Avengers era might be the high point of that particular comic, but I think it is in the two part story from Avengers #161-162 by Jim Shooter and George Perez where Ultron really comes of age. Mouse on over to my column and see if you agree!

Thanks to StashMyComics.com for hosting The Dollar Box!

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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