Wednesday, January 23, 2013

REVIEW: Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

The blogger with Stan the Man himself (2003)

A few years back, I reviewed Gerard Jones’ 2004 book, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, about the early days of the comic-book industry, as told through the prism of the creation of Superman, generally considered to be the first comic-book superhero. That book exposed the seedy early days of the comic-book industry and, particularly DC Comics, now a division of Warner Brothers / Time Warner. Originally a back alley, lowbrow publisher, DC is now a multi-national media company, its fortune built on the successful exploitation of the iconic character’s two young and naive creators by opportunistic and street-smart businessmen. So reading the recently-released Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, by Sean Howe, seemed to be a natural follow up. (For the uninitiated, DC is the home of the “grand-daddy” of comic-book characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, most of whom were created in the 1930s and ‘40s, while Marvel is the younger rival upstart, consisting of Captain America, Spider-Man, the Hulk, and Iron Man, which hit its stride in the 1960s.)

Like DC, Marvel Comics — originally founded as Timely Publications, which later morphed into Atlas Comics — rose from the pulps. As the well known story goes, its owner and publisher, Martin Goodman, hired his wife’s cousin, Stanley Lieber, as a general office assistant. Lieber, wishing to protect his dream to pursue a career as a writer and novelist, decided to use the pseudonym “Stan Lee” and, after a few false starts, eventually turned the struggling comic-book company into the “House of Ideas” known as Marvel Comics, home to the above-mentioned characters and others like Wolverine, the X-Men and the Avengers. The company achieved a degree of legitimacy and validation in 2009 when the Walt Disney Company purchased Marvel for $4 billion. 

Though Lee is one of the main protagonists in the book, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is somewhat more sprawling compared to Men of Tomorrow, which focused primarily on the parallel and intertwined stories of the naive, inexperienced creators of Superman and the street-smart publishers who exploited them and their character. In contrast, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is an all-encompassing history of the company, covering its beginnings as an off-shoot of a publishing house that initially made more money from its adult men’s magazines; several false starts that more than once brought the company to the brink of bankruptcy, partly due to mismanagement and the disinterest of its owners; and, of course, the eventual success of Marvel Studios’ film franchises and the purchase of the company by the Walt Disney Company in 2009.

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Along the way, author Sean Howe provides plenty of interesting and juicy anecdotes and stories, which includes glimpses into the animal house antics of the early days of the bullpen and the behind-the-scenes politicking and maneuverings among the staff. He also provides a good overview of the idiosyncrocies of its various corporate owners over the years, including the legendarily tight-fisted and publicity-shy Ike Perlmutter who, with Marvel’s acquisition by Disney, became one of Disney’s largest single shareholders (and a vocal one at that).  At the same time, Howe provides context throughout the book by giving overviews of the storylines and plot developments that were being told in the comics as the Marvel “universe” grew and became more complex.

Though Stan Lee is, of course, a major recurring figure in the book, one of the most revelatory aspects of the book for me is how little authority the legend seemed to actually wield in the company. Lee’s name remains synonymous with Marvel and is rightfully credited for creating a powerful brand that connected strongly with fans. Yet as much as he is an acknowledged “company man,” the book suggests that though he guided Marvel’s creative and editorial direction in the early years, for the most part he seemed otherwise beholden to the publishers and the owners he reported to, wielding little real fiduciary authority, often uncomfortably straddling a gray area between management and freelancer. (In later years, he seemed to become more disengaged as he went off to pursue various Marvel-related opportunities in Hollywood on the west coast.) Underscoring this observation is the fact that Lee has resorted to suing the company to receive what he felt was rightfully owed to him, while paradoxically remaining a loyal soldier and unofficial ambassador of the company. Admittedly, his assertion that he wielded no real authority sometimes seemed a matter of expediency when dealing with upstart freelancers, as an easy way to say “no”; in truth, he seemed to benefit from having it both ways, as the

While not quite as lyrically told as Men of Tomorrow, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a  breezy yet comprehensive read that kept me engaged, competently covering both the creative and business side of a company that has become a treasure trove of ideas and intellectual properties for Marvel and now its parent company Disney.

...to this! 'Nuff said!