Badass Bookshelf: MARVEL COMICS - THE UNTOLD STORY
Is Stan Lee an asshole?
This was the driving question I had when I began reading Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. Over the years the creation myth of the Marvel Universe - Smilin’ Stan Lee and Jolly Jack Kirby together, bouncing ideas off of each other and laying the groundwork for all of our pop culture to come - has become sullied and darkened by gripes from within. Kirby, before he died, began claiming that not only did Stan not invent or write ANY of the classic Marvel stories, Jack was actually the guy who created Spider-Man. That came along with a growing unhappiness in the industry with the way creators have been treated by the corporate entities that own their creations. Stan has slowly morphed into the wisecracking bad guy who danced at the ends of strings pulled by fat cats.
Sean Howe’s book rehabilitates Stan - to an extent. Stan Lee is presented as a guy caught between two masters, trying to make good comics and to protect the guys working under him while also keeping the bosses - in the beginning Martin Goodman, later a revolving door of corporate raiders - happy. After reading Howe’s book I have come to believe that it wasn’t Stan who made the Marvel magic but rather who ALLOWED it to happen. He was an enabler of the magic, giving bigger creative minds support and an unprecedented openness in terms of stories and how they were told.
He still might be an asshole, though. Lee is portrayed as a guy who was in a real hurry to get out of comic books and into Hollywood, where he would spend decades with his dick in his hand, unable to get anything decent actually going. Howe’s version of Lee is a guy who checked out in the 70s.
But this is the Untold Story of Marvel Comics, not just Stan Lee, and the reality is that Lee is only a tiny part of the longer tale. Howe’s book focuses a little bit more on the business side of the story, with his tale reaching its ultimate complexity in the 80s and 90s as Ron Perelman took over the company and steered it directly into bankruptcy by oversaturating the market with shitty books covered in shitty gimmicks.
Howe seems to have little love for Marvel’s creative output post-Jim Shooter; the book slides away from a creative biography of the company into much more of a stock-oriented biography. The argument could be made that this reflects the nature of Marvel after going public; while sales had always been paramount to the company, outrageous profit started leading the way in that era.
You can see which era Howe loves the best; he brings a lot of love to the second generation of Marvel, to the Steve Gerbers and the Jim Starlins, while later creators like Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker - who are arguably responsible for a strong creative resurgence even in the face of mounting corporate interference and stupid crossover events - get skimmed over in passing. I can’t blame him, as I find that era to be the most incredible, creatively, after the initial big bang (I’m also a pretty strong Shooter fan, to be honest. Howe is very dismissive of books like Secret Wars II, which I find to be an astonishing work of insane autership rarely seen in comics outside of Kirby and Grant Morrison), but I wish the book had brought the level of examination of creative decisions it has for the 70s to stuff happening in the modern day.
Some of that of course comes from people not wanting to talk; even in the earlier segments of the book there are a number of anonymous Marvel staffers dishing dirt. There’s nothing too horribly gossipy - no marriage-destroying affairs or revelations of massive coke habits (even the well-known alcoholism of certain creators is kept mostly mum) - but there are some back and forths about who was hated and who acted like a real jerk. Jim Shooter, predictably, gets a lot of the hate. John Byrne and Chris Claremont’s feuds are aired out. Howe seems to really have it in for the Image founders, going so far as to almost infer that Rob Liefeld’s Heroes Reborn version of Captain America pretty much killed Mark Gruenwald (he specifically blames Gruenwald’s death on the demoralization of the Marvel bullpen, but tell me how you read this paragraph:
Before Gruenwald left for his weekend home on August 9, he grabbed a preview copy of Rob Liefeld’s Captain America #1. It was Gruenwald’s favorite Marvel character; until a few months earlier he’d either written or edited every issue since 1982. On Monday morning, rumors started flying around the offices, confirmed by 11 a.m. email from Terry Stewart. “It’s with my deepest and most profound regret that I inform you that Mark Gruenwald passed away unexpectedly early today at home,” the note began. The cause of death was a heart attack.
I found the first half of the book, where Howe delves more into the relationships between creators and editorial, and the process of coming up with some of the iconic characters and stories, to be the most interesting, but the corporate intrigue of the second half is gripping. I know how the story worked out, but Howe brings us through the fiscal ups and downs in a way that almost approaches being a financial thriller.
There’s still room for another book. This isn’t the ultimate story of Marvel Comics, and I’d love for Howe to return in a couple of years to fill in some of the gaps in the creative stories of the 90s and beyond. There’s some intriguing stuff here about the Bill Jemas era - Howe seems to respect the guy and understand how he turned Marvel around creatively while also sort of poisoning the well - but too many of the players are still employed at the House of Ideas, meaning nobody wants to give a truly insightful look into what was going on in editorial.
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is an absolutely necessary book. Especially so for fans of comics, but also for anyone interested in modern popular culture. The story of Marvel is the story of modern creativity, the way that small moments of inspiration grow and become popular and eventually butt directly against the wall of profitability and corporate greed. The book ends with The Avengers as the number one movie in the world, and with Marvel owned by Disney, but there’s a sense that what made Marvel so special - the huge imaginations of the founders - has been defeated, that free-wheeling creativity cannot exist in the larger marketplace. The characters have succeeded, at the expense of the creators.
[Note: I bought the Kindle edition of the book. It contains no photographs. I would recommend buying the harback edition.]