44 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Face front, true believer! This is the big one!
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...
Published on 11 Nov. 2012 by Runmentionable
Published 6 months ago by Mr. Paul D. O'Connor
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44 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Face front, true believer! This is the big one!,
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?
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Marketing and Mayhem in the Mighty Marvel Manner!,
By 1971, there was clearly no future in working for Marvel Comics. Jack Kirby had jumped ship for DC, sales were declining and Marvel's new owners, a New Jersey outfit called Perfect Film & Chemical, had installed a CEO who was making life so difficult for management that even Stan Lee was looking for the nearest exit. It was part of the boom and bust cycle that had plagued the comics industry (and Timely/Atlas/Marvel in particular) since the late 1940s, but when Marvel came back from its latest downturn -- as it would keep coming back from the brink of a series of disasters to come -- it was as a more resilient and ambitious company than ever.
Sean Howe's tale of the second-rate comics company that turned itself into the gold standard of superhero geekdom is a fascinating business book about the rising value of intellectual property in the late 20th/early 21st centuries, and a sweeping narrative history of the people and the work environment behind Marvel's best-remembered comics. Howe is enough of a fanboy to write knowledgeably about the great story arcs of past decades: the coming of Galactus, the Kree/Skrull War, the Dark Phoenix saga, the deaths of Elektra and Gwen Stacy. His critical eye is acute, as in his wonderful observation that "to a dedicated readership of gearheads, pot smokers, and art students, [Steranko's] 'Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.' was the apex of an art form."
A savvy journalist, Howe identifies the crux of Marvel's early history as the Stan Lee - Jack Kirby partnership, a dynamic machine built on fault lines of ego. They co-created most of the company's iconic characters, changed the way comics were drawn and written, and wound up feuding in public until Kirby's death in 1994. Money and story credits had a lot to do with the problem, but it seems also to have come down to bruised egos on both sides.
Howe's five-decade history of creative, editorial, and marketing imbroglios practically screams a moral at us: relatively few artists are good businessmen. In the divide between labor, management, and owners, those who remained incorrigibly labor, like Kirby (or Chris Claremont), could never win. Those who became management, or free agents, like Neal Adams, Jim Steranko, Frank Miller, Todd McFarlane, and Jim Lee, more often than not acquired the bargaining power to get what they wanted.
The history of Marvel reads like a series of epic story arcs. There's the Big Bang of the 'sixties; the rudderless 'seventies; the Jim Shooter era, with an editor-in-chief seemingly dedicated to sabotaging Marvel's entire line of books; the boom and bust years of the early to mid 'nineties, in which the Heroes World distribution debacle and the mass defection of artists from Marvel to Image (who, once there, were incapable of releasing their books on time) helped to put thousands of comic shops out of business, just as Marvel, the former industry leader, declared bankruptcy. The book ends with Disney's acquisition of the company in a four billion dollar deal that validates an edict Stan Lee had handed down decades earlier: fans don't want change, but the illusion of change. Not bad for a faltering line of bug-eyed monster comics and Archie knock-offs, where a new type of creative team was about to give their readers what they hadn't known they'd wanted all along.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars In Praise Of Marvel Comics The Untold Story,
At 437 illustration-free pages, and between hard covers, I'm grateful I had the holiday haitus to read it in, its bulk might have ruled it out as a travel read (it would have easily tipped me over Ryanair's hand-baggage allowance).
I'd love to recommend it to everyone, and being a proper book rather than something on a Kindle I can happily lend it to my friends who want a gander, but I'm not sure who would be as interested as me in what is, to a very great extent, a 400 page fanzine article.
That's not to say it's not well-written. It is very well written, and exhaustively so, listing hundreds of interviewees and people who've helped with research. It is expertly structured, drawing the reader through a narrative that remains compelling even through its hardest-to-follow events.
But those events are the 60-odd year history of Marvel comics. And who's interested in that?
Well, I am. And as I say I am unsure who else would be whose life had not been so influenced and intertwined with Marvel's. I read the comics as a child, and was one of a privileged generation of British kids in the 70s and 80s who were able to read reprints of the earliest Marvel classics from the 60s in weekly pocket-money comics at the same time as being able to buy the most exciting of the brand new comics fresh from the States. I then found myself writing and drawing for fanzines in the 80s as Marvel and the whole comic business went through an explosion of popularity and a creative revolution. And to top it all, in the 1990s, I wound up writing and drawing for Marvel comics, answering directly to the House Of Ideas in New York city.
And for most of this time I'd had a vague idea of what went on behind the scenes. In the 80s we read about the raw deal that had been given to the creators of these star characters, we knew Jack Kirby got nothing for being co-creator of everyone from the Fantastic Four & The Hulk to the Avengers & The X-Men, and that Steve Ditko was similarly hard done-by over Spider-Man. And in the 90s I knew, first hand, that the comics business was prone to ups and downs when I was on the wrong side of Marvel's filing for bankruptcy and was one of the two-thirds of the company's employees who found themselves suddenly out of work.
Now this book spells out in excruciating detail what went on behind the scenes. Great parts of the book are romantic and inspiring and make me want to rush to my desk and draw comics. (Indeed, when just one chapter into the book, I did just that and drafted half a dozen pages to a graphic novel/film proposal that I'd plotted a year ago). The story of how Stan Lee & Jack Kirby had gone from the highs of the wartime Captain America comics to the lows of the McCarthy era when, in the late 50s, Stan is given the job of firing most of the staff as the comics industry teeters on the brink of collapse, only for their little-noticed back-room not-quite-superhero comic The Fantastic Four to begin a renaissance in comics that no-one could have imagined, is a legend that deserves telling well and gets just treatment here.
The creative highs and lows and the struggle between the various waves of idealistic storytellers and money-minded executives is something that will come as no surprise to anyone who's read histories of any creative industry from the music business to Hollywood. And by the time we get to the 1970s, this book may start to shake off the attention of anyone who wasn't there at the time. But to someone who was a reader, as I was, it is a genuine revelation to me just what was going on behind the scenes. I guess, were this about about a car manufacturer or a chain of grocery stores, it would have no more nor less in the way of action and incident - and apart from a shocking number of people dying young, through stress or unhealthy lifestyle, this book is not full of events that would pass muster on even the dullest of soaps - but because it involves names I know well, comics that were the centre of my life, and a good few people I've subsequently met and worked with, it is riveting. I know things about, and have read stories from Jim Shooter, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, Sol Brodsky, Joe Quesada, Martin Goodman, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Steve Gerber, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Todd Macfarlane, Grant Morrison and dozens more that I didn't know before and that I'm glad I do now.
As I think back over it to pick out anecdotes worth repeating, I'm finding myself thinking that no-one else might much care what Jack said to Stan on a radio phone-in in the 80s, or what bizarre suggestions various editors-in-chief made to writers over the years, or how come Vince Colletta ended up inking so many comic strips despite being the fans' least favourite. And I'm amazed at myself when the book gets to the corporate buyouts of the 1990s and what began as a story of bright young creators bustling with ideas that excited a generation turns into an arcane Financial Times article about leverages, buyouts and takeovers, and I'm still reading and enjoying it.
See if you imagine this sentence coming from an interesting book: "Perelman's various holding groups... filed for Chapter 11 protection in Wilmington Delaware: Mafco Holdings, which owned MacAndrews & Forbes, which owned Andrews Group, which owned Marvel III Holdings, which owned Marvel Parent Holdings, which owned Marvel Entertainment Group and Marvel Holdings." Well it does. Though I will concede it's not the book's most interesting sentence.
I feel proud to be part of Marvel's history. Not that I'm mentioned in the book or anything. But in the book we find Stan Lee in the late 60s asking colleagues "Why would you want to get into the comic book business?... the most you can say for the creative person in the business is that he's serving an apprenticeship to enter a better field". And ten years later we have Gerry Conway saying the same thing to fans at a con. Well now I say stuff like that to the kids I teach. And luckily, just like it did back then, it just makes them want to get into comics all the more. Comics are funny that way.
Congratulations to Sean Howe for dedicating himself to writing this book. I hope he will find a host of readers as satisfied by it as I am.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Definitive account on Marvel during the 1980s,
This is a very good account of what was going on behind the scenes at Marvel Comics ... during the 1980s. I was fascinated by this because I worked at the UK office of Marvel during that same period and made the pilgrimage to Marvel US (around 1982). But as a casual visitor, I had no idea what was going on with the editors on a day-to-day basis. This book explained it all completely.
Sean Howe's untold history of Marvel Comics really comes to life detailing the shenanigans during the period 1972 to around 1986. Sadly, the coverage of the golden years of Marvel (1961-1971) and the later period (post-1995) is a good deal thinner. Sparse, actually. This makes me wonder if Howe had planned just to concentrate on the Shooter years, but his publishers reconsidered and asked him to add material on the earlier and later periods.
There are other books that cover the earlier years better than this. "Tales to Astonish" does a very good job on Marvel of the 1960s. "Men of Tomorrow" also sheds some much-needed light on those years. Even Stan Lee's own "Excelsior" does a better job on the 1960s than "Untold Story" does.
And the corporate raider years of the mid 90s is far better covered in Dan Raviv's "Comic Wars".
The material on Marvel's fortunes during the late 1990s and onwards is positively spartan ... so cursory that it might as well have been left out.
Someday, someone will write a complete history of Marvel ... but this isn't it. Don't get me wrong ... if you want a thorough and balanced account of how Marvel fared under the leadership of Jim Shooter, "Untold Story" does a very fair job. It's just not the whole story.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You think you know the history of Marvel? Trust me, you're wrong!,
Genius! If you have any interest at all in the creative or business end of the comic book industry over the past fifty years, then you need to read this book. The general Marvel narrative is well-known: desperate publisher allows experimentation, genius artist and wisecracking huckster create a new paradigm, the Sixties pop art revolution, College kids become the new audience, the original band splits up due to creative (and financial) differences, the Seventies cultural revolution, underdog becomes overdog, creators robbed of their rightful rewards etc etc etc.
And that's all here, of course- but there is so much more to the story. Carefully researched, generally impartial, willing to speculate, this is enormously entertaining, and full of new insights. A joy to read. Helped by Howe's witty prose, this is a delight, full of laugh out loud moments and clear explanation of very complex situations.
Here's a test for you- Howe's description of longtime Marvel bad guys AIM: "shady industrialists outfitted like futuristic beekeepers". If you laughed with recognition at that description- this is the book for you! Buy now!
If you love comics, you will love this! If you don't- you might like it anyway! Excelsior, pilgrims!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unique- the story of Marvel comics taken seriously and written for grown ups.,
This review is from: Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (P.S.) (Paperback)
This is an intriguing and very entertaining account of the politics, business machinations and behind the scenes goings on in the Mighty Marvel Bullpen.
The early sixties at Marvel were quite an extraordinary period of creativity- dozens of heroes, villains and iconic images poured out of their offices. Sean Howe tells the history of these times and pulls no punches in revealing the conflicts under the surface. He follows through on the evolution of Marvel to the present day detailing key plotlines, stories and characters (real and imagined).
Having been a fan for fifty years I found this account riveting and very well written. At times it is depressing reading with more arguments over royalties and credits than I ever thought possible. I would have liked a little more on the creative aspects of Marvel- however that is a minor quibble with an excellent book.
I wonder if there is any chance of one on DC and even something on the contribution of British comics?
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inside Marvel Comics,
By the early 1960's it appeared that the fad for comic book heroes had passed. Marvel had had some success in this area, Captain America and The Human Torch were both popular in the 1940's, but by the late 1950's and early 1960's no-one could have predicted that a whole new group of super-heroes were waiting in the wings.
Within a relatively short period, The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and The X-Men were amongst the new heroes launched on an unsuspecting public. These super-heroes were different from those who had come before, though. They weren't perfect and had to deal with the everyday stresses and strains of modern life. Spider-Man might be a crime-busting hero, but Peter Parker was an ordinary college kid, bullied by his peers. Along with an ever increasing and complex Marvel Universe where characters crossed over into each others stories, this was something new and exciting.
Initially, the creation of this new-found Universe was in the hands of a fairly small group. Stan Lee scripted and artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko provided the artwork. But as you make your way through the book, the departures and arrivals of staff become frequent. It's not difficult to see why, as the likes of Kirby and Ditko left Marvel, having co-created some of the most iconic figures in comic-book history, without any rights in their creations. And the fight for copyrights would sometimes rumble on for decades, as detailed in the book.
By the early 1970's the spark had dimmed somewhat, so the time was right for a younger group of artists and writers to kick-start the next generation of Marvel. This is repeated over the following decades, as Marvel's fortunes decline and rise, ending up today as part of the Disney empire, who purchased the company for $4.2 billion in 2009.
Sean Howe has done his research, and the book is full of interviews and anecdotes from the key players. If you're looking for a well-illustrated history of the Marvel Universe then you'd be advised to look elsewhere. But for an engrossing insight into the people who created the Marvel empire over seventy years, then this is a long, but very worthwhile, read.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Marvel as you've never seen it,
Very interesting account of the history of one of America's prime comic book publishers. Ideal for people who don't know much about Marvel Comics.
However, for the more knowledgeable fans, some aspects of Marvel's history are sadly forgotten, or quickly brushed away, whereas it appears that the author was mostly interested in the seventies and eighties. Still, a solid read.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A worthy purchase, true believer,
Got this off Amazon before Xmas and read it in one sitting (almost).
If you're on Facebook, I highly recommend author Sean Howe's dedicated page on this book as it contains an awful lot of visual information sadly not present in this fine volume (Jack Kirby's 1958 future cityscape illustration on this FB page is astonishing; Moebius who?).
Anyhoo, as an 'elderly' fanboy myself, I'm well aware of the history of Marvel Comics; even in Scotland, we've heard the alleged tale of a certain Marvel artist who beat up a fellow artist mate of his who wouldn't hand over the money he'd made for filling in a couple of issues said artist couldn't make the deadline on but it's good to have this oral history of Marvel Comics all confirmed in print, more or less.
For younger comic book fans, this book is a terrific read and I highly recommend it. I'd certainly never heard of David Bowie's ex-wife Angie having such a particular interest/involvement in the Black Widow character so that piece of trivia alone made it worth purchasing.
Author Howe's analysis of Marvel's editorial philosophy is spot on (ditto for same regarding the subtext found in Editor in chief Jim Shooter's own writing on the Avengers, for example) not to mention the business related ups & downs over the decades (no wonder Stan Lee mostly sat that stuff out).
Since this book is only available via Forbidden Planet and Amazon (or the odd charity shop), you'll not find it in any high street bookstores.
A worthy purchase, indeed, Effendi!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The real story,
I'm a big comics fan, and pretty much grew up reading Marvel comics. I also used to read a lot of the fanzines/magazines about comics which in a lot of cases were far more interesting then the comics themselves. This is a massive book full of revelations about the people who created the comics, some of which I had already heard of other stuff was new even to me. Some revelations I'd rather not known about (drugs used in the creative process) but if you are at all interested in the history of Marvel comics then this is a must. If you like pictures though rather then words maybe consider the purchase as there are none to speak of.
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Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe