MARVEL COMICS: THE UNTOLD STORY
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story
By Sean Howe
488 6x9-inch pages, no pictures
A history this is not. It is anecdotal rather than documentary. At best, it is a book of gossip; at worst, it is inaccurate. All history is gossip so we can scarcely fault Howe for spreading lots of it in this book. But recognizing that the book is more gossip than ascertainable fact is a good way to prepare for reading it. Despite this debatable shortcoming, The Untold Story has been receiving favorable reviews hither and yon, mostly because (a) Marvel is big in the entertainment biz; no longer merely a simple publisher of funnybooks, (b) many of those doing the reviews don’t know much about Marvel so this tome seems gloriously juicy with insight, and (c) everyone dotes on gossip, the nastier the better.
Howe is not particularly nasty although he does manage to make Marvel into a sort of simmering stew of fights, feuds, squabbles, power plays and bad feelings fostered by a boss, Stan Lee, who appears increasingly more concerned with promoting himself rather than Marvel Comics. Lee is not a bad man in Howe’s estimation; but he seems oblivious to the effect on artists and writers of his decisions that advance the fortunes of Lee (and, to be fair, also of Marvel) at the expense of creative enterprise. Much of the narrative is a litany of people who were so slighted or put upon by Lee or by corporate preoccupations that they quit the company, leaving behind a crushed and bleeding spor of shattered dreams and broken promises.
In some ways, Howe shows, Lee was as much a victim as any of his cohorts. When Marvel began to be noticed for producing comic books about unusual superheroes, longjohn legions “with problems,” Lee, as the editor of the line, would be interviewed by newspaper reporters and very often his enthusiasms led his interviewer to believe that Lee was the sole creative personality at Marvel. This is an old story. Kirby created the Silver Surfer, Howe says; but Lee has always referred to the character as his creation, not Kirby’s. Ditto with Spider-Man and Ditko. Only in the last 15-20 years has Lee pointedly acknowledged that the creative machinations at Marvel included artists at his elbow.
The relationship between plotter/writer and artist, between Lee and Ditko — and that between Lee and Jack Kirby — epitomizes the “Marvel Method” of creating comic books. Lee conjured up a plot and outlined it to an artist, and the artist then drew the story and then passed the finished pages of visual storytelling, first in pencil then in ink, back to Lee, who then created speeches and captions that knitted the pieces together. (Although sometimes, as gossip has it, Lee couldn’t remember the plot when confronted by the pages it inspired. He made do, though — larding the tale with witticisms and quips, thereby, almost incidently, creating the Marvel mystique.)
The “Method” served the purpose for which it was devised: by sharing the storytelling load, Lee was able to produce great quantities of comic book stories that he could not have created had he tried to write complete scripts for the artists, the practice followed by DC and most other comic book publishers in the early days. But the “Method” also fostered the notion that Lee was the creative engine at Marvel; artists were secondary. The actuality, however, was quite the reverse. And the artists resented it.
Howe’s narrative, liberally laced with gossip and the dubious testimony of disaffected writers, tumbles along, aiming for the Big Finish when the company is rescued by blockbuster movies based upon Marvel characters. Howe does, however, footnote exhaustively, impressively, and he lists all those he interviewed between 2008 and 2012 (something like 150 persons).
Howe’s sourcing is impressive, but however scholarly the apparatus, he is relying largely upon the testimony of writers and other factotums at Marvel, and very little on artists. On the one hand, this practice is fruitful: writers, in particular, are articulate about their experiences and their views of what was transpiring at the “House of Ideas.” On the other hand, writers, particularly those who create works of fiction, are, by nature, tempted to make things up — or to emphasize selected instances for dramatic effect. In short, since writers make their living by fabricating the best tales they can, isn’t it likely that they’ll deploy their talent during interviews about their, and Stan Lee’s, past? How reliable are they as sources?
Jim Shooter, whose persona in Howe’s book emerges largely from the testimony of the writers he bullied, comes off as a ranting tyrant, demanding substantial changes in books on the day before they are scheduled to go to press. Jim Starlin and Steve Englehart partied all day and dropped acid before plotting their books. How reliable is their testimony?
Still, Howe has cobbled up an engaging narrative. He may not have interviewed many of the artists, but he is astute enough as a reader of comics that he can assess the art and articulate his appreciation of it, thereby filling out portions of his narrative. He alternates plot summaries about the comic book adventures with gossip about writers, artists and editors. Anticipating the Hollywood crescendo that ends his tale, Howe threads throughout the book Stan Lee’s longing for the career of a Tinsel Town mogul.
Building up to his big screen conclusion, Howe details Marvel’s insane appeal to the so-called “collector market” (which turns out to be not as large as everyone imagines) and the company’s equally nutty devotion to marketing tricks (cover enhancements, anniversary issues and other gimmicks) that were detrimental to the future of the company and of the medium itself.Howe is not convinced that the “Hollywood rescue” (as I call it) is good for Marvel. It performed a financial miracle of sorts, but the comic book universe it rescued has been modified and amplified and glorified out of its previous virtual reality by means of the endless tinkerings and alterations necessitated by the heroes’ appearance in other media, passing, en route, through the hands of a seemingly endless parade of temporary custodians. The comic books still come out, but they appear in the service of larger market considerations. They are commodities, not artistic creations.
Much of Howe’s “untold story” has actually been told before in biographies of Stan Lee. But the title leads the uninitiated among book reviewers to suppose that the book is full of “inside” information, tantalizing backstage stuff that the public, which seems panting for the next superhero movie, is hungry for. Maybe we are. I am famished enough that I’ve now read this whole book — even though I know much of it is gossip, like most histories that are fed by the prejudices of eye witnesses.
Still, Howe’s is an impressive performance. He demonstrates superior organizational skills in assembling a massive quantity of information and in arranging a cogent order for its presentation. And his tumbling narrative is highly readable, a pleasure to wade through — although splashing might be a better metaphor for the delights of the experience.