Tuesday, 30 October 2012

On "Marvel Comics The Untold Story" by Sean Howe

In which the blogger attempts to review Sean Howe's "Marvel Comics The Untold Story" while giving away as little of the book's contents as possible. Regardless of that effort, spoilers are still inevitable, so, dear visitor, please beware;

Sean Howe begins his history of Marvel Comics in 1961 with publisher Martin Goodman ordering Stan Lee to produce a knock-off of rival DC's new and successful Justice League Of America. As Howe puts it, Lee's "mandate" was to "steal this idea and create a team of superheroes", and that's exactly what happened. Right from the beginning of the comics industry, Goodman's MO had always been to jump from one trend to another, opportunistically exploiting the innovation of others with a flood of the cheapest possible product before moving on, and on, and on.  Yet the profoundly disillusioned and fundamentally bored Lee took Goodman's diktat and broke with the bottom-feeding cycle of creatively moribund, exploitation kid's comics. Instead, he and his artistic collaborator Jack Kirby effectively highjacked what was to become the Fantastic Four as a means to express their own artistic ambitions. As such, the comic was from the off anything but more of the same, and beyond the fact that it starred a group of super-people, it bore little resemblance to the Justice League at all. A fundamentally different kind of superhero comic, it was far darker in tone and often considerably more intense than just about anything the cape'n'chest insignia brigade had ever seen. With its plots driven by soap operatic degrees of conflict and tragedy matched to phenomenally inventive and powerful visual storytelling, the Fantastic Four was soon a hit, and Goodman could start to exploit his own company’s achievements. More than that, Lee and Kirby’s work began to suggest that the superhero comic could be considerably more than just a socially scorned method for separating easily-distracted children from their dimes.

It's an often told story which Howe summaries well, and it's worth repeating here because the writer smartly uses it to emphasise how Marvel was quite literally born from the conflict between profit and self-expression. Flick forward 440 pages or so and Howe's account of the Marvel of the 21st century shows that that conflict's been definitively resolved in favour of  the company's corporate owners. Many of the original creators of the intellectual property that's the Marvel Universe - such as artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko - had swiftly found themselves enmeshed in disputes over artistic freedom and due credit, royalties and ownership. In the post-Millennium period, as Howe tells us, "those (creators) who fared best were those who held no illusions about the relative priorities of commercial viability and personal expression". When Howe quotes film producer Avi Arad explaining that it’s the comics responsibility to serve Marvel’s merchandising interests, the reader’s left in no doubt that today’s superhero universe is first and foremost an expression of corporate interest.

The myth that Marvel could be anything but has been a long time dying. Even now, the company often attempts to spin a modern-era take on Lee's unique brand of all-for-one, more-bang-for-your-buck hucksterism. Marketing Marvel as a family and recasting the company's consumers as a community was one of Lee's most brilliant innovations. It combined with the illusion that Marvel's books would become ever more ambitious and entertaining, and created the sense of a world which didn't just distract the reader, but represented them too. In that, the company offered not just entertainment to its diehard followers, but the vague and compelling sense of an alternative society. One day, the most gifted and fortunate of fans might even be able to move into the temple itself and contribute their own talents to the cause. The ethical standards espoused by Marvel's costumed adventurers combined with Lee's depiction of the company as an Utopian employer to create a  deeply attractive and almost counter-cultural sense of a better world. To come across that brew at a susceptible age was to run the risk of developing not just a deep attachment to Marvel's products, but to the very idea of the publisher itself.

But as Howe emphasises, there never was a Bullpen composed of a joyous, united host of inspirational artists and writers. Though there were brief moments when the perceived interests of fnance, management and creators appeared to coincide, the clash between ownership and individual creativity soon re-emerged. Caught for a moment in the Sixties between the two sides, Lee is shown repeatedly opting for the self-interest of service to the company rather than any more Utopian values. Though quite rightly deeply respectful of Lee's achievements in the early years of the Marvel era, Howe appears to have no doubt that the man himself was only too happy to leave both comics and the interests of his fellow creators behind as he manoeuvred himself out to the media promised land of the West Coast. Time and time again, Howe portrays the essential discontinuity between what Marvel appeared to stand for and how it actually operated. Creative talent is constantly shown to have been treated carelessly, callously and even maliciously. The way in which Lee's earliest and most brilliant collaborators such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were exploited is perhaps a despairingly familiar business to many. Yet the capacity of the various and often-changing powers-that-be at the company to screw over its employees emerges as shocking even to those who've spent years - perhaps even decades - following such matters. To know of the many and various acts of  irresponsibility, parsimoniousness, abuse, deception, power-mongering and stupidity is one thing. To read of one such an act after another is to feel an ever-darkening sense of futility and despair. Certainly anybody convinced that businessmen and the managers they appoint are by their very nature ethical and efficient servants of the greater good ought to be presented with Howe's work. Perhaps nowhere is the sense that all but the lucky and powerful few were always doomed to an unhappy end at Marvel is summed up in the following quote from Chris Claremont. Once the darling of the company for the way he raised the X-Men from a low-selling also-ran to a property capable of generating tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, Claremont eventually found  himself exiled from the very books he helped to make so much of;

"I recall seeing (Superman creator) Jerry Seigel, then working as a proofreader, hustling around the office and trying to get writing jobs. I said to myself, I'm never going to be one of those guys. Now I look on the stands and see comics of all these characters I created, and Marvel won't let me write them."

It is more than possible to read Howe’s book as a record of how a set of uniquely valuable properties were finally delivered into profitability. To those not of a bent to celebrate corporate accumulation as an end in itself, Marvel Comics The Untold Story offers an account of how the Lee-proclaimed House Of Ideas has been run not just heartlessly, but all-too-often incompetently run as well. Yet none of this is to say that Howe has produced a Manichean account of Marvel's history which unconditionally celebrates the talent while denigrating the management and the owners. Those at the top of the tree aren't always portrayed as capitalism's running dogs, while those toiling over typewriters, drawing boards and computers are often portrayed as dopey-headed and cruel-hearted themselves. Editors from Roy Thomas through Archie Godwin to Mark Gruenwaldand Joe Quesada are portrayed with a considerable degree of respect. And though Jack Kirby is always treated with both admiration and sympathy, the author is always careful to show that the King himself was at moments capable of compromising behaviour. Similarly, if Howard The Duck creator Steve Gerber is often used to represent the artist whose rights have been trampled upon, then his serious problems with deadlines and an unfortunate deception of editor Tom Breevort in the 1990s aren't skirted over either. 

Admirably, Howe's tendency is always towards a measured and verifiable account of what the fights were about and where the bodies were buried. His triumph is to synthesise a huge amount of printed material, supplement it with a mass of original research and then lay out each innovation, fight, achievement, back-stab, breakthrough and screw-up one after another in an ultimately heart-crushing sequence. He may not rant, spit and stab like a great many dedicated and disillusioned fanboys would have, but that just makes his evenly-expressed work all the more powerful and damning.  For those of us who grew up swallowing the myths of the all-for-one Bullpen and associating our own youthful lives with the values of Marvel’s various superheroes, Howe's work, in all its sympathy and balance, can be a distinctly uneasy read.

Given how much ground the writer sets out to cover in this single volume, it seems churlish to quibble about what does and doesn’t appear in the book. Some may feel that he ought to have taken a more openly polemical approach, while others might bemoan the fact that this is a record of how a business developed far more than a detailed record of its products. Caught between the needs of the outraged loather of the company and the Rumpishly partisan reader, Howe’s book can often seem to be skating across events which demand a greater degree of attention. To my mind, I wish there’d been even more time invested in issues such as the representation of minority groups both in the comics and the workplace. (There’s nothing here that matches Christopher Priest’s account of what working for Marvel as a Black creator could regrettably involve, for example.) But the greatest weakness in what’s often a fine history is Howe’s coverage of post-Millennium period. The years following the departure of Bill Jemas in 2004 is covered in just 8 pages, and the impression that’s given there is of a company which has, for all of the challenges before it, resolved the tension between the artist and the company. Yet there’s been a series of stories in the period since in which creators have expressed disappointment at the degree to which management is determining the content of their work, the most recent of which has come from the departing Greg Rucka. And when Howe argues that today's "writing and art work ... is ... more sophisticated than ever before", the problems associated with the likes of deconstructed storytelling, Event marketing, editorially mutton-headed decisions, the lack of political engagement in the comics, and the failure to reflect much beyond a narrow niche of white readers all disappear in a generally optimistic glow. There’s certainly no trace of the content of the stories which have appeared in2011 on Bleeding Cool and The Beat concerning the apparently savage and capricious financial restraints which afflict the company and many of its employees in a year in which its products have generated hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue.

* "Despite what the publishers say, their  interest in the talent is minimal now, the interest is only in promoting the financial worth of their properties.", from CliNT October 2012

Despite that, Marvel Comics The Untold Story is a substantial, equitable and thoroughly enjoyable if rather depressing read. It certainly lays out the human cost of Marvel’s current commercial wellbeing as a generator of massively lucrative copyrights. But it also celebrates both the best of the company's comic book achievements and the most gifted of the women and men who created, edited and marketed them. But in the end, what it leaves the reader with is a clear sense that capital if not commercial wisdom has tended to win out at the cost of the very thing which once made the company so vital and influential. The priority given to the preserving of intellectual property for exploitation in other media means that the superhero tale has remained at heart a deeply conservative sub-genre. The brief moment of radical innovation which resulted in Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four sparked off the Marvel Revolution of the early Sixties, but it soon became an example of what not to do. “Publishing was where it all started, and it was a great source” declared Avi Arad, “But the big deal for the company was merchandising …”. Lee, Kirby and Ditko's revolt swiftly collapsed into style, into Lee's infamous "illusion of change". Few creators are brilliant enough to make something truly worthwhile of a story whose events will almost inevitably be cancelled out in the eventual back-to-basics reboot. Marvel was born out of radical change, but now most of the creative energy invested into it goes towards ensuring that its products seems to be daring and innovative while rarely being anything of the sort. Those few writers, artists and editors who do succeed in producing remarkable work under such constriants deserve a substantial degree of respect for their achievements.

To arrive at the black and white photograph of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby laughing together in 1965 which so pertinently closes the book is to feel a terrible sense of loss and betrayal. Both men are formally dressed and yet they appear quite relaxed if not somewhat refreshed. Kirby’s hand rests on Lee’s left arm as if he had just one more thing to say, but for all his good cheer, Lee appears to have eyes only for the camera.  It’s enough to make the reader wish that they didn’t know what was to come for the relationship between the two men, or of how little substance the myth of the House Of Ideas ever truly held after its first few years of existence.

The TooBusyThinking verdict; A fine book that's well worth the investing in, or, in fewer words; buy! 


  1. Great stuff. But I'm only on p33 - back anon ...

    1. Hello Martin:- Hurry up!

      I'd really like to know your take on the book.

  2. You just convinced me to get a copy of this book soonish. I'd heard a lot about it, but I was waiting for a trusted source to review it.

    1. Hello Kazekage:- Thank you for saying so. I'm glad that my high opinion of the book came over, even as I tried to be honest about aspects of it which I thought needed mentioning. It's well worth the reading :)

  3. On my wishlist (maybe for X-mas). . . but all the excerpts I have read from it have been fantastic. Some of the excerpts discussed women and minority characters at Marvel. . . is that just not in the final product or is it just that it is given too little space in your opinion?

    1. Hello Mr Oyola:- It's a question of space and context to me. There are some lovely pieces about those issues. For example, Howe writes well about Marvel's inability to grasp, to name just one example, that having a Black villain called the Man-Aoe was not a sign of sensitive, progressive thinking. And the issues are woven into the narrative; the unfortunate of sexism in some of the cover of the Jemas era are mentioned to. For my money, the whole issue would've rewarded more attention, and that's especially so where the post Jemas era is concerned. But that's a question of my own taste, and it's not meant to suggest that book isn't honourable or enjoyment regardless! It is.

  4. Now I have to find the cash to purchase this. I think the issue of working at Marvel, or DC, as a minority is a book all of its own. From Flo steinberg and Marie Severin to the philipino artists of the seventies and the likes of Larry Hama, Chris Priest and Denys Cowan the list of minority creators is big enough to fill a book and that's not even considering the relatively poor showing of minority characters. Howe had to choose a focus for the book to keep it under a thousand ppages and the business and relationship side of Marvel tends to get missed in favour of the creative tales. Definitely one I need to read.

    1. Hello Peter:- I think that most folks who are kind enough to pop in here would enjoy this book :)

      I agree that the whole idea of representations and the treatment of minorities - to use the phrase as shorthand - could and should absorb a study of its own. I also agree - as I did express - that there was limited space in the book and choices had to made. It must have been a challenging business. Perhaps there'll be a second volume from Mr Howe, or an expanded edition. If I say I'd welcome both or either, it should transmit my belief that the book is - despite any of my personal quibbling - a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

      Though rarely a cheering one, I fear.

  5. Hi Colin: Although I finished the book over the weekend, I'm still processing my thoughts about it - so please forgive if this response isn't as coherent and/or substantive as it ought to be. (I think I'd like to write my own review of the book in the near future just so that I can figure out what exactly it is I think of it.) On the whole, I agree with you that Howe is fair and even-handed in his portrayals of the company and the people that constitute it, although by the end it's hard not to feel more depressed than encouraged about the current status of creative expression and financial remuneration within Marvel. Although it felt a bit slapped on, I thought the concluding paragraphs and, in particular, the bit about Marvel characters doomed to exist to their hermetically sealed fates - I don't have the book in front of me, so apologies for the rough paraphrase - were especially poignant. I concur that there were a good number of issues that I wished Howe hadn't so easily elided; you mention race as one of them, and to that I'll add that I wish more time had been spent on gender as well. For instance, Marie Severin's experience as a female in a male-dominated (and likely male-chauvinist dominated) workplace and field would've been fascinating. I would've gladly traded pages detailing those matters for some of the passages detailing the significance of the Dark Phoenix Saga or what-have-you. But I suppose that's a case of me wish-casting for the sort of book I would've liked to have seen, as opposed to the excellent book Howe wrote. In any event, I'm sure your smartypants readers - along with your smartypants self!- will have more to say that would be of great interest to me, so I'll cede the floor for now and look forward to "hearing" some of that feedback.

    1. Hello Anthony:-Thank you for your own review, as it were, for we do seem to agree on the broad issue of the book's quality. There's nothing you've said that I'd disagree with. It seems to me that Howe - quite understandably - had to chose single examples of particular points where a great many other things might also have been discussed. And so, to take but one example, he uses Herb Trimpe as his specific example of long-established creators elbowed out in the 90s. In mnany ways, I might have seen Sal Buscema as an even more productive example; he was even more of a work-horse and he'd tailored his style and output for decades to serve Marvel's editorial needs in a very specific fashion. Both men's treatment was brutal, and yet Buscema's experience seems to say even more about how little long and loyal service can count. But that's just the option I might have taken, and as you say, there's a danger of blaming Howe for not writing the book that we might want rather than the one he choose to.

      I was using the word "minorities" in the sense that sociologists do, having taught the subject for so long, by which I mean, I was referring to women as much as any other social group with less power. It's not - as I mentioned in a comment above - that Howe doesn't discuss issues to do with many minorities, but you're right, the book would've been stronger with more about issues of sex and gender. Or at least, I think so.

      There's always going to be a great deal that a reader who knows a little about this subject may disagree with. Readers who know alot - and it's always good when they drop in here - will find, I suspect, a great deal. It's always going to be relatively easy to find problems in such a book. On the very first page, for example, Howe refers to the legendary golf game between Goodman and Leibowitz which led to the FF's creation. Yet Mark Alexander - in The Wonder Years - argues convincingly that no such match ever existed. Now, Howe covers himself by saying something to the effect of "so the story goes", but I'd've thought it would've been better to miss it out altogether. Is that a big deal? Naw. I just offer it up as an example of how vulnerable a writer of such a book can be even on page 1. Yet the book is, as you say, excellent, except for its last section, and that's what should be accentuated.

      That's my pennysworth as a smartypants! Thank you for yours :)

  6. Oh, how depressing. In some ways I dread the thought of reading this--but will do so at my earliest opportunity.


    1. Hello mikesensei:- There's no escaping it, is there? I should say, I've read reviews which have called it inspiring and heartwarming, though I'm at a loss how those that have written have come to that conclusion.

      Fascinating, but not cheering, I fear.

  7. Hi Colin,

    thanks for reminding me to get this book. I'd heard about it but your review really piqued my interest.

    With regards to the issues you raised in your review, they got me thinking. I'm quite a sour cynical person (Yorkshire), so while I recognise the injustice of it all, I just stick it on the pile of bank bailouts, Israelis and Palestinians and every other depressing thing that would have once enraged me but now just makes me feel tired of the world.

    The annoying thing is I like the characters. I want to see a new FF story that's good and what happens to Kid Loki next. You mentioned it in your review and I agree that the way to make the most out of working for Marvel (or DC) is to assume that your working under a corporate system and try and slip good stuff under the radar until your known enough to go independent. Millar style!

    Having said that. These days the comics I buy are collections that I either know are good or if I'm a fan of the writer (such as Roger Stern, his Avengers stories make me very happy). Modern stories haven't really held an interest for me for a few years and issues like the constant promotion of people like Jeph Loeb really make me question things. I was still interested in the Ultimate Universe after Ultimates 2 and the man took that interest and set it on fire. Obviously a man to run your TV development then.

    I wouldn't mind their corporate nonsense (it's the world we're in) if they could just treat the people that make it all possible with a little respect as well as... give me good comics and TV shows. I'm happy to give them money for comics, why can't they be decent? The films have been largely good in my opinion but still clearly beholden to a certain corporatised style. Joss Whedon vagually broke out a little in The Avengers I thought.

    A final thought, one of the commenters above mentioned that Marvel characters are hermetically sealed and I have to agree. Personally, I'm of the opinion that time stopped when Stan Lee stopped writing Spider-Man. He stopped aging. The FF stopped aging and growing as a family/people. Franklin Richards never grows up. Lee created these characters and grew them... and then demanded they stay the same forever,even after he left. Quite an interesting man, I'd say.

    1. Hello Ejaz:- You're very welcome :) I've been wondering for awhile what the purpose of this blog was, and as always I just come back to the conclusion that it's simply a place where folks can turn up and see whether somebody would recommend a book or not. Nothing more, of course, nothing less. If that means that a book which somebody such as yourself had thought of buying and then forgot ends up being purchased, then I'm chuffed. The blog as remind-me post-it note. That sounds good to me :)

      I think there's every chance we'll get good FF and Loki/Young Avengers stories. There are folks who appear to know how to serve the folks signing their wage-checks - which is of course no bad thing in any sense - as well as producing work that's well worth the reading. It's a heck of a skill, and few people master it. But those who can do deserve three cheers and a hat or two hurled into the air.

      At the same time, I hope they're all diversifying too, so that Millar-time and not the fate of poor Jerry Seigel is before them. As it were.

      The lack of huzzahs! for Roger Stern and the continual advancement of Jeph Loeb quite baffles me. And yet, Mr Loeb has impressed a great many folks. His skills and contributions must be significant. I'm not being sarcastic, I'm really not. It may be hard for some consumers - such as myself - to grasp what he offers, but I'm sure there's very good reasons for his success in climbing the corporate and artistic ladder as he has. One day, we'll find out what he's contributed and we'll all forget about the likes of the UU Blob chewing on the Wasp's intestines, for awhile at least.

      But until then ...

      You'll enjoy reading Mr Howe's book on the "freezing" of superhero's development. From Martin Goodman's edict circa 1968 or so that comics needed to be less ambitious and complex, through Stan's declaration that change should be illusionary rather than actual, and so on to the present day, there's a great deal about how maintaining a stable corporate trademark trumps radical change every time.

      Ah, well, It does mean that when we get a Daredevil or Journey Into Mystery, the pleasure of seeing creators fulfilling stifling limitations and still producing good work - excellent work - becomes all the more intense.

      I think you'll enjoy the book, Mr E, although "enjoy2 may not be the best work. "Be fascinated by" might be better.

  8. It's fascinating watching this book make the rounds of various blogs--interest in it seems to build with each review. One point seems to stand out among most of them, and that is what you've mentioned about it being an excellent yet perhaps depressing read that will dash (or at least taint) more than a few illusions that long-time readers have held of the company (thanks in no small part to Stan Lee's ever-present upbeat salesmanship). It's not my impression that those illusions were ever cast in stone for anyone--there's been way too much turnover of creative talent at Marvel for that sort of Norman Rockwell portrait of Marvel Comics in its prime to ever stick--but I suppose in the back of our minds, there was always this tucked away feeling of the Marvel bullpen, all pitching in for us, that we wanted to preserve.

    This review was very interesting reading. Someday I may have the fortitude to read Mr. Howe's account, which I dare say Irving Forbush would have tripped over himself to keep from seeing the light of day.

    1. Hello Comicsfan:- I think Mr Howe and his colleagues have run a very smart campaign for the book, and the subject matter itself is of course of real interest to a great range of comics readers, including many of those whose direct involvement in Marvel's product has lapsed. There's an irony that's it's weakest on the recent years, given that that's where the current generation of readers will have a great deal of their interest focused. As you say, watching the response to the book is interesting ...

      Of course, as you quite rightly imply, we've known that the House Of Ideas was never so for decades now. Whatever emotional pull that idea had has to be a pretty limited one now for most folks. Yet where Howe's book works is to show one disaster after another. Whether its economic incompetence, creative infighting or any other kind of conflict, the history of Marvel is so at odds with the values which its characters have been used to embody that it's hard for even those who already knew most of this stuff not to feel ... let's be polite, disappointed. There are folks who come out well from this, and there are moments when the right things appear to have being done. But that's not so for the majority of the narrative.

      Mind you, it's worth adding that Mr Howe couldn't have been a great deal more scathing and sensationalist. There's a great deal that isn't here. Like all good journalists, he's picked his moments and edited his material to avoid a constantly shrill tone of disapproval. It's something which accentuates the humanity of all involved, even as some of them aren't behaving very humanely at all.

      I hope you enjoy the book when you do read it. I'd certainly put it into anyone's hands who was thinking of going into area of the comics industry.

      Irving Forbush? Some rumours have him retired on a very comfortable pension. Others whisper he was mugged, sedated and his vital organs auctioned off. Who can say?

    2. ...it's worth adding that Mr Howe couldn't have been a great deal more scathing and sensationalist.

      I had thought of including the impression that Mr. Howe seemed to be coming across as the Kitty Kelley of comics circles with this book (which is arguably no slight), but without reading the book I didn't want to make such a leap. :)

    3. Hello Comicsfan:- Believe me, Mr Howe could've gone a great deal more Kitty Kelley, he really could have done. (I enjoyed her Sinatra book despite its problems and learned alot through it, so I agree it wouldn't necessarily be a slight.)No, his approach is far more measured.

      Which means that there's a hole in the market for a Comic Book Babylon still :)

  9. Great review, Colin. I started collecting Marvel Comics towards the tail-end of Lee's runs on the FF & Spider-Man, but part of what hooked me was the atmosphere that Lee created for the company, including the Bullpen mythos. I was hardly aware of Ditko and I didn't think too much about why Kirby left, but as the decade wore on I was peeved when a favorite writer or artist left a particular mag, especially in the middle of a multi-issue storyline, but of course at the time I had no idea what the backstory was. In the early '80s I became a regular reader of the Comics Journal and that was the real eye-opener for me. Yeah, a bit disillusioning, but such is life. Reading some of the above comments, I was struck by the thought of all the behind the scene stories about the making of comics that might be as compelling as the comics themselves, even if too often distressing. Commerce provided the breeding grounds for artistic expression which wrought worlds of wonder but also snuffed many out to make way for more reliably selling pablum. Of course, this conflict has always existed in all artistic fields, even in the fine arts and music from classical to pop. Fortunately, every so often the conflict does allow diamonds to pop up in the middle of all the rubbish, as Jim Starlin depicted in one of his classic Warlock tales of a couple of eons ago.
    I'll definitely be picking up Howe's book later on.

    1. Hello Fred: - Thank you :) To those of us who were lucky - ? - enough to grow up when the Bullpen myth had anything of its original force, it did indeed present a powerful image of a company which was everything which the often-grey culture of the day wasn't. (I'm speaking from a Brit perspective here.) To discover that Lee's wonderful hucksterism was simply hype which masked the fact that Marvel was not just a typical business, but in many ways a far worse place to be than many others beyond comics in terms of working conditions and rewards, was, as you say, an eye-opener. As you suggest, the Comics Journal was vital in stripping the myth bare. By the time it had printed the articles about Frank Brunner and Steve Gerber's departure in the late 70s - I was in my mid-teens - the Marvel myth was gone for me.

      But like all lapsed faiths, great and small, from minor crushes to religious conviction, what's no longer believed in does leave a hole behind. A daft business, but it's still possible for me to find myself feeling a measure of surprise, even shock, that Marvel should've been SO different to the image we were sold. Which is why that photo of Lee and Kirby which closes the book is so moving ....

      You'll smile to hear, I'm sure, that the "diamonds in the garbage" sequence from Starlin's Warlock which you refer to is discussed in Howe's book. I think the picture he draws of the mid-Seventies at Marvel is fascinating and far better balanced than many would've offered.

    2. Yes, The Comics Journal was like a splash of cold water in the face in terms of taking a cold, hard look at behind-the-scenes Marvel. At times it became quite the forum for Marvel's creative talent to air out their differences (as well as to escalate them).

    3. Hello Comicsfan:- It's impossible to over-state how important the Journal and its later sister publication Amazing Heroes were. And it certainly succeeded in gaining the kind of access through Shooter-disgruntled employees which you'd rarely if ever see today.

    4. On the plus side, the Comics Journal also exposed me to many other types of comics, particularly undergrounds and independents, causing me to expand my collection to include the works of Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar's American Splendor and Dave Sim's Cerebus, among many others.
      Nice that Howe discussed that Warlock sequence,Colin. When I first read it as a kid, Starlin's satirical poke at the industry went over my head, but the whole Magus saga was pretty much my favorite comics story of the '70s and I felt cheated when the series was cancelled. Sure, Starlin eventually did the conclusion in the Avengers and MTIO annuals, but it seemed to me an abbreviated version of what Starlin may have originally planned.

    5. Hello Fred:- Oh, me too. The Comics Journal was a classroom of sorts, and it led me to Pekar and Crumb and Jackson and Eisner and Sim and all points beyond. The problem for me was when the extremes of contempt for the mass-market action/adventure comic began to entirely predominate its contents. At which point, I stopped listening. Because I like the pop as well as the jazz and classical, as it were, and I wasn't prepared to abandon one for the other. That elitism fatally undermined the Journal's appeal for me. I was delirious to be a spectator at a debate, but a constant puritan harangue about how stupid I still was to be enjoying superhero books just wore me down.

      Of course, the disdain was never total. But it certainly got to feeling that it might as well have been.

      The mid-Seventies at Marvel remains for me one of the company's three golden ages. Howe's particularly good at how that came about and on why the period was a real commercial challenge for the financial side of things. Yet regardless of that, I'll always remember how inspiring it was to be able to pick up terrific books from writers such as Englehart, Gerber, Starlin, Moench, McGregor, Wolfman, Conway et al, with most of them at their peak.

    6. Hi, Colin, I agree about the elitism that came to dominate the Comics Journal, to where publisher Gary Groth expressed scathing contempt for the entire superhero genre and fans of the material. Of course, nothing wrong with him pushing what he liked in his magazine, but I wished the mag as a whole had remained a little more balanced as it went from being a journal about the industry as a whole to being far more about obscure pockets of the industry and utter disdain for anything mainstream.
      I also agree that those writers you listed helped produce some of my favorite comics stories, which I enjoyed as a kid and much I still find entertaining decades later, even if Groth thinks we should have long ago outgrown that greasy kids stuff!

    7. Hello Fred:- I do regret Groth's desire to turn his back on the super-book and a great deal of the product associated with it. The Comics Journal was a wonderful way, as we've discussed, to entice superhero fans across to a broader audience. As you say, it was entirely his right to do so. But I wonder if he didn't help the process of drawing a line between the superbook and everywhere else. Of course, Amazing Heroes was designed to take onboard the discussing of the superbook, but it lacked the authority of the Comics Journal for all that it was a fine magazine in its own right.

      Ah, well. Groth's choices haven't exactly turned out badly for comics! I adore Fantagraphics and all that it's achieved. To regret that Groth didn't work with his colleagues to include the superbook more in their vision of what is and isn't acceptable is one thing. But it is only one thing. To note how much good Fantagraphics has done is to admit that he's achieved a very great deal. I've reviewed several Fantagraphics books with four and five star rating in Q over the past few months. There's little in the super-book that can begin to compete with the likes of the Hypo and Love & Rockets The New Stories 5, while the reprints of the likes of Pogo and Peanuts are peerless.

      Hats off to him, even if I still love the "greasy kids stuff" too!

  10. I enjoyed Howe's book tremendously. The most surprising parts were the scenes in which Stan Lee's persona slipped. While I know he's human and not a hype machine with a nervous system, reading that he wasn't perpetually gung-ho about comics in general and Marvel in particular at any time after his Silver Age success was almost alarming. I ended up feeling bad for the guy, despite his accomplishments and mistakes.

    I think the book could have benefitted from being broken up into 2 volumes, and the modern section expanded. As you said, the book we got is still an impressive read even if it isn't completely perfect.

    - Mike Loughlin

    1. Hello Mike:- I think that's the key point to accentuate: it's a very entertaining book. (Whether it would be so to someone with only a passing interest in Marvel is something that I've wondered about. Does it really explain what was so exciting about the comics of any particular moment? We know a great deal of what the fights were about the ownership and control of the books, but I wonder if we learn enough of their contents? But I'm too close to it all to know.)

      I don't think that Stan Lee comes out very well at all from the book. That doesn't mean that Howe doesn't show how brilliant Lee's absolutely central contribution to the Marvel revolution was. He shows Lee the absolute respect there that he's due. But there's little of Lee standing up for others in a way that might cause the slightest inconvenience to himself. Some of the problem with that relates to Lee's public statements of principle and those he had his characters made. But some of it seems that he just didn't care about his fellows in a way that appears fair. He just doesn't come out of the process very well at all.

      None of which undermines his achievements, of course.

      I agree entirely with you about a two-volume version of the book being a good example. There's so much that I'd like to know that's not covered, even given what a well-worth-the-reading book it is in its current state.

    2. This reminds me of the David Hajinian book Positively 4th Street, about Dylan, the Baezes, and Richard Farina- and how Dylan does not come out looking too good either. I wonder if there's something about books with a focus on a larger-than-life personality that can't help but set clear every unappealling trait and action of theirs- if that level of detail will doubtlessly make someone look bad. Or, alternatively, if maybe the likes of Dylan and Lee are simply so good at controlling their own publicity that their dickishness only becomes apparent when you stop reading (and beleveing) their own self-hype.

      Either way, I still enjoy Dylan, and I'm sure that even after I read this book, which I would like to do, I will still enjoy his prose and plotting, if maybe in a bit more measured way.

      But there is a parallel to the life of Steve Jobs as well- a Wired Magazine story recently explored the phenomenon of managers and tech people learning entirely opposing things from his life and biography: some people saying, "it looks like you have to be a dick to become as successful as him" and others saying, "I don't want to turn into someone who abandons his own daughter and screams at his employees!" What lesson do you choose to learn from incredibly sucfessful people behaving immorally?

    3. Hello Historyman:- You're right, Dylan doesn't come out well out of much from that period. My own thoughts tend towards my own shameful past, and of how more shameful it might have been if I'd've had the talent the opportunity to exploit it when young. I'd hate anyone to start trawling what a twit I was at 18 or 20. By which I mean, I suspect that normal - and especially extraordinary - lives aren't designed to bear up too much scrutiny without fatal flaws being revealed. Of course, some folks have better back-stories and hearts than others.

      I do agree with your implication that we of course have to separate the life and the work. Or at least, we do in the vast majority of cases. Lee's failure to stand up for his fellows is a deeply regrettable business. It doesn't change my regard for the product he contributed to in the period 1961 to mid-1966.

      I'm not sure we ought to try to deduce the method of folks such as Jobs, who makes Lee and Dylan at times appear positively saintly. I think we ought to look at folks who make it without being so ....challenging. There are indeed a few of them out there, though they're rarely the one which make the best subject for biographies :)

  11. I'm up to 1968 ... but I may crack and read this anyway!

    1. Hello Mart:- Well, I do try to keep away from the spoilers of the book and stay instead on the general themes. I don't think it'd spoil much.

      1968 is of course the year that Alan Moore claimed that the myth of Marvel was revealed to be exactly that. It's not cheering reading, is it? Mind you, the book, for all its qualities, rarely is.

      I hope you might pop back tomorrow. We have a certain Martin Grey contributing a guest blog then.

    2. That's your page view stats knackered then ...

    3. Hello Martin:- Piffle, young man, piffle. You'll be the saving of TooBusy :)

  12. Hi Colin! Great blog - thanks so much for keeping it up. I'll definitely have to get the book - I was leaning towards getting it, but wasn't sure considering there are other books on the market.

    I am curious as to your thoughts on other histories of comic books - Ronin Ro's Tales to Astonish, for example, or Mark Alexander's The Wonder Years (both of which I heard weren't great, the latter having been taken to task by Evanier himself).

    Men of Tomorrow and the Ten-Cent Plague, on the other hand, I definitely look forward to getting!

    Finally, I thought this might be a fitting blog post to mention that today is Steve Ditko's 85th birthday. Happy birthday to the man and great thanks for his work!


    1. Hello Nikolai:- No matter what weaknesses this fan or that can raise, Howe's book is certainly worth investing in.

      Speaking as someone who's very much not an expert - it's only right to admit - Ro's book reads well, but it seems to be very general and doesn't appear to reflect new research that takes the story in any previously unsuspected directions. (It's certainly not a patch on his fine history of Death Row records, which I greatly enjoyed.) Though I mentioned Alexander's The Wonder Years in an above comment re: the mysterious "golf game" which supposedly led to the FF's creation, it seemed like a particularly amateurish book to me. As a self-produced fanzine, it would have been a charming - if often trying and repetitious - extended polemic reflecting one fan's personal opinions. I didn't know that Mr Evanier had taken it to task, but it doesn't surprise me. It's one man's love-letter to two creators and one of their creations, but it doesn't feel substantial or well-written enough to justify the expense. It's obviously the product of a passionate fan, but that in itself doesn't make it worth investing in. (I'm sure there's many who'd disagree with me.)

      Men Of Tomorrow is the single best book ever written about the super-book industry. It's quite brilliant. Jones also co-authored The Comic Book Heroes, which is a fine read too. The Tent Cent Plague is similarly well worth the reading. It really is.

      These are just my takes on things. A wholly subjective take on things.

      I hadn't realised that it was Mr Ditko's birthday. He remains an inspiration, despite the fact that I share nothing of his ideology at all. But of course, it's not his job to produce work that I agree with, after all. It's his job to be Steve Ditko.

      And thank you for the link to that special moment in Spidey history too :)

    2. It's funny, isn't it, how inspirational people can be who share completely different ideologies? I myself am both a socialist and an anarchist - though I don't really like labeling myself - and cannot stand Objectivism or Ayn Rand. But I feel that reading comics growing up, including reprints of the Ditko Spider-Man run, is what helped lead me to my own philosophical, moral, and political dispositions. It just goes to show how much we're all emotively similar but how we conceptualize those experiences into vastly different ideas and conclusions.

      Incidently, I HIGHLY recommend this book for you especially:

      War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film by Marc DiPaolo


      I haven't actually read the full book, only certain chapters or pieces from chapters, but look forward to reading the whole thing once I own it. Full chapter exerts from the book can be found here:

      I hope to someday hear your own thoughts on the book!

    3. Hello Nikolai:- I can only agree wholeheartedly with you. I loathe Randism and all associated doctrines, but it isn't the job of art to reflect MY own opinions! I don't seek out creators who agree with me, and that's particularly so since I often don't know what my own beliefs should be. As with you, I look for good work which may just help me sharpen up my own thinking.

      I've not come across Mark DiPaolo's book! Thank you the reference. I shall add it to the "must investigate list" :)

  13. Hy Colin,

    It's a late reply but...

    First thing I thought after reading this post: Marvel has historically had problems establishing a more 'authorial' imprint. Icon is much, much less solid than Dc comic's Vertigo and Marvel's 'Epic' print has been shot down several times. Seems like the Shared Universe concept was much more restrictive in editorial terms at Marvel... It is hard to think it only in terms of business (sandman and watchmen stills selling well as far as i know...). One should think why people at Marvel had developed a so deeply conservative culture that risked to suffocate the company a few times. The Marvel usual response to these crises is to bring some change - (the 2000 Marvel era may be remembered, as Waid's Daredevil and Gillen's Journey into Mystery) but the changes are very often fast unmade. Morrinson's 1234 and Gillen's post on tumblr (here: http://kierongillen.tumblr.com/post/34522875244/one-for-sorrow-why-did-kieron-do-it) both bring to us a sad tone of people that knew that changing was impossible from the very beginning, the powers-that-are at Marvel forcing writers to eventually do what has always been done.
    Not that I'm actually agreeing with the impossibility of change (as the company has indeed changed many times), nor saying that only Marvel has these kind of problems, but this feeling of a suffocating status quo has cost Marvel a lot (just to mention two very notable losses: Kirby - though he would eventually return, imagine if Marvel were supportive and Kirby's Fourth world happened at Marvel in the 70's - and Moore collaborations).
    I'm a huge optimist, but if that hasn't taught them... what on earth will? =(

    1. Hello Thomaz:- There's no such thing as a late reply in the blogosphere. Your words are very welcome :)

      It's true that Marvel's had more problems setting up what you interestingly call "authorial imprints". Of course, DC doesn't seem too interested in such things anymore, which is a terrible shame. After all, much of the big selling superhero books which appeal to a broader audience do fall into the are of Watchmen and Dark Knight and Marvels. But the short-term returns do seem to be in the monthly books, and the monthly books also offer capital and editorial the chance to get involved in content. There's a great deal to appeal to the powers-that-be where the traditional pamphlet is concerned, and little to be said for allowing individual talents a great deal of freedom.

      Of course, that does make sense from a financial point of views. The comics are there to soak up the Rump's money while contributing to the value of the corporate-owned trademarks. That's what the Big Two are. To allow a great deal of creative freedom is to run the risk of confusing the public, investors, the media, while also risking changing product into a form that can't be comfortably marketed in film, games, underwear and so on.

      The thing is, Marvel is working very well for the folks who own it. It doesn't exist for them as a means for creator's artistic expression, though if that can coexist with - or even boost - profit, they seem happy to go along with it.

      There have been those brief moments when radical change seemed possible. The early 60s, the mid-70s, and, to a lesser degree, 2000 to 2004. I don't think there's a hope that that will ever return. Thankfully, there are the Waids and Gillens who can work brilliantly well within the corporate constraints. Three cheers for the like :)

  14. Hey Colin! Just wanted to link you to to this piece by Bob Greenberger, which features an extensive critique:


    1. Hello Nikolai:- I've nipped over there and it's a fascinating piece, isn't it? Thanks for the nudge. It's the best comment on Marvel The Untold Story I've read.