Sean Howe's enthralling, detailed and accurate narrative history of Marvel Comics is most certainly not Brand Ecch. Authoritative and insightful, it ranges from the company's founding in the late 1930s right up to May 2012 and the release of the "Avengers" movie, and encompasses not just an account of the company's key outputs but also its successes in the context of the industry, its internal politics, and its corporate history. This is achieved by extensive primary and secondary research (with all sources scrupulously noted), brief but astute pen portraits of key players, and a clear, wry prose style that manages to communicate a lot of detailed information in a compelling manner that always advances the narrative. To say nothing of a succession of jaw-dropping anecdotes about bad behaviour from creative staff and corporate shills alike. Readers with an interest in Marvel's history will know some of this already, but there's much that's new here, and the whole story has never previously been collated in such a comprehensive manner. It's also to Howe's credit (and that of his editors) that there are so few obvious errors. Unlike many books on comics history, the grip on the chronology is steely, there are almost no factual mistakes (I spotted one typo) and there are only one or two spots where minor editorial amendments would improve clarity. Put another way, there aren't many No-Prizes to be claimed.
Any flaws in the book are omissions. You may find that your favourite creators or series aren't covered in enough detail, or at all. And there are no illustrations, apart from a poignant 1965 snap of Lee and Kirby, right at the very end of the book. With regard to the former (and I really wish he'd given more love to "Tomb of Dracula") he doesn't miss anything that's truly significant to the overall narrative, and with regard to the latter, I think the words "Disney" and "licensing fees" offer a convincing explanation. It would have been nice to see some reproductions of the comics. It's entirely understandable why we don't.
What's apparent on reading this is how much Marvel's history resembles its own comics. It's characterised by flawed heroes (Howe has an evident soft spot for maverick writer Steve Gerber, the other wild and wooly '70s creators like Englehart, Starlin and McGregor, and their benign mentor Roy Thomas), surprisingly sympathetic villains (it's the first nuanced portrayal of founder Martin Goodman I've ever read), comedy, complicated continuity, and, above all, lots and lots of fights. Goodman versus Simon and Kirby! Goodman versus the 1940s staffers! Goodman versus the 1950s freelancers! Wally Wood versus Stan Lee! Steve Ditko versus Stan Lee! Goodman versus multipart stories! Goodman versus Neal Adams cover designs! New owners versus Goodman! Stan Lee versus innovation! Everyone versus Gerry Conway! Jim Shooter versus the creative staff he inherits! Jim Shooter versus the creative staff he puts in place! Jack Kirby versus Marvel! Frank Miller versus Marvel! Marvel versus Chris Claremont! The Image gang versus Marvel! The rest of the Image gang versus Rob Liefeld! Marvel versus the comic book store owners! Bob Harrass versus his creative staff! Numerous appalling corporate magnates versus each other for year after year after year! Steve Ditko versus Stan Lee again! Bill Jemas versus Grant Morrison (gratifyingly, Jemas wins)! Bill Jemas versus Peter David (gratifyingly, David wins)! Bill Jemas versus Marvel's readers! The corporate powers-that-be versus Bill Jemas (and guess who wins that one?)! And, most preposterous of all, but as inevitable as Cyclops killing Professor Xavier, Stan Lee versus Marvel Comics*!
The narrative of Marvel's history resembles its own comics in two other key ways. First of all, the same narrative arcs reappear every few years. And each time they do, the scale gets bigger, more dramatic, and more complex. If Goodman's initial dismissal of Simon and Kirby is Spider-Man versus the burglar (albeit with the burglar winning), then the boardroom battles of the 1990s are like the Dormammu-Eternity battle from 1966 - the same raw elements, but with the scale and complexity ramped up to an almost incomprehensible scale. Anyone without an MBA who can claim to truly understand all these corporate conflicts has my full admiration.
Howe's grasp on all this material and his sharp aesthetic judgements on Marvel's comics are utterly asssured. The secret to this is probably his gift for characterisation. He's too smart a writer to obviously take sides, and he's scrupulously fair, but he seems to like the creatives more than the bread-heads. Consequently, his most interesting portrayals are of those with a foot in both camps. Bill Jemas, the Harvard law graduate who felt he knew more about comics than anyone who created them or read them, comes across like the kind of absurdist super-villain Steve Gerber was so adept at creating. The rich tragi-comedy of the Jim Shooter years is a particular highlight of the book. Shooter's entirely admirable mission was to make the trains run on time, increase sales and improve quality. He was a complete success at the first two (though his man-management methods were frequently dreadful, leading to the mass exodus of much of the company's top talent in his first few years), and, some obviously great moments like Miller's "Daredevil" excepted, terrible at the latter. He was eventually sacked by senior management, when (in one of the most spectacular examples of losing the dressing room ever recorded) they saw photos of the staff, who'd come to abhor his micro-management and overly prescriptive editorial perspective, burning Shooter in effigy at a party. Howe points out that a typical Shooter comics plot focusses on an all-powerful figure who will make everything nice for everyone if only you little people will JUST DO AS YOU'RE TOLD. He doesn't spell it out, but the parallels are unavoidable.
Howe also comes up with the best characterisation of Stan Lee you'll ever see. Lee, in typically modest mode, frequently used to compare Marvel's scripts (most of which he was writing himself) with Shakespeare. Here, he comes across as a Shakespearean figure himself, a vastly amiable, occasionally naive and sometimes blinkered man who gained the world (or at least more of it than co-creators like Kirby and Ditko) but lost a large part of his soul. He's the most famous, and perhaps the richest, comics creator ever, but the riches are modest compared to Marvel's various corporate heads who've contributed nothing to the characters and stories the company's wealth is built on. And as for the fame, it isn't accompanied by respect - except in the comics field (and even there, it's not universal). What's more, on the basis of what we see here, it seems he never really wanted to be in comics in the first place, and he feels more than a little embarrassed by his association with the field. He may have always wanted to be a Hollywood player, and he's certainly a minor figure there, but he commands so little respect and power that his two lines- two lines! - of dialogue in the first Spider-Man movie are cut. For all his material success, and his failures to do right by his co-creators, it's hard not to feel a bit sorry for him. You know, kinda like J. Jonah Jameson.
Ultimately, Howe's book is about some very old themes - art versus commerce, workers versus management, staff versus freelancers, and what's legal versus what's right - and while he's always balanced, you can clearly see where his sympathies lie. Even if you don't share his viewpoint, it gives the book a clear and consistent perspective, which is essential in telling the remarkable tale of how Marvel grew from a tiny backwater of a disreputable area of children's entertainment to a dominant presences in global culture. It's a hell of a tale, and Howe's telling of it is like one of those wonderful Marvel annuals from the 1960s - gripping, epic in its scope, full of new thrills and packed with bonus information. It's a must-have collectors' item, an instant classic and one you can't afford to miss, frantic ones! Excelsior!
* I learned the word "versus" from the first Marvel Comic I can remember reading. Does it show?