Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Marvel Comics - The Untold Story!
I read a lot of great reviews of this tome by Sean Howe when it first arrived in hardback a year ago. But I didn't feel like paying that much for a tale I thought I pretty much knew already. When it came out in paperback a few months back, I took the plunge at last, thinking I might find a tidbit or two worth the price of admission.
I did not know what I did not know. This really is the "untold story", not so much because it reveals things folks never knew (there is some of that...at least for me) but it puts in one spot a raft of tales from the long years of Marvel's legendary "Bullpen". This is a compelling story not of the comics themselves, though they are mentioned some, but of the powerful and ecclectic egos who put them together.
There is a refreshing matter-of-fact style to the writing which helps its air of credibility. Howe doesn't seem to come at this as a fan who wants his heroes to shine regardless and neither does he seem intent on some hatchet job to make bloodsport of the history of this significant 20th century pop culture phenomenon.
One of the inevitable threads is the saga of the late Jack Kirby who is shown as a fundamentally good but nonetheless complex man torn between his loyalty to his family and the needs of a company which he knows doesn't really have his interests at heart. Kirby comes across as a creative genius for sure, but a man who more than anything wanted some due credit for the great things he'd put into the popular imagination. Watching the fuse burn down on Kirby's career at Marvel as Stan "The Man" becomes ever more popular is an interesting subplot of this narrative.
Stan Lee on the other hand seems in many ways both the most successful of men, but also ultimately a forlorn figure who has never ever succeeded in Hollywood in the way he ultimately did in New York City, and who chased that windmill of larger entertainment success for nearly all the later years of his long life which continues to this day. There's a sadness in both the stories of Stan and Jack which might give even the biggest Marvel fanboy pause.
Some things I didn't know, but perhaps should've was for one the fact that to forestall a lawsuit from Carl Burgos Marvel published a new appearance by the original android Human Torch in the fourth Fantastic Four Annual twenty-eight years to the month (the absolute end of the time when the copyright would lapse) only to kill off the character again in the same yarn. That's a slap in the face, one drawn by Jack Kirby of all people. To do the same for Bill Everett it is suggested that the down-on-his-luck Everett was essentially given work (despite his unreliability) and paid off with a loan from Martin Goodman himself to keep him from raising a ruckus over the Sub-Mariner.
In fact we learn that Jack Kirby testified against Joe Simon when the latter tried to take control of Captain America at the same time. Marvel even went so far as to publish some Golden Age adventures of Cap by Simon and Kirby minus their names in Fantasy Masterpieces with new Kirby covers, to reinforce the company's hold on the iconic character. It's these incidents which make me feel for the these men who created great things, but were pitted against one another because everyone at the end of the day has to earn a living. It's a hard world, something these guys knew well. It makes Jack's later attempts to get what was due him painfully ironic. As an adult in the cruel world, we are asked to make some hard choices, and this is the story of some very tough ones indeed.
I didn't know that The Invaders was largely created as a boon for Roy Thomas when the "Rascally One" was thinking of leaving Marvel after his tiresome tenure as editor-in-chief. I didn't know that Gerry Conway was exceedingly upset when Len Wein and Marv Wolfman, longtime DC writers and new arrivals at Marvel, got the nod as editors-in-chief before him, though when he did get the gig eventually he only did it for a single month.
The saga of Jim Shooter is well documented and it reads as I imagine it must've gone down. Shooter was the tough hand needed to bring order to a bullpen gone wild after years of easygoing management, but turned out to be a guy with a take-no-prisoners style which rubbed raw after order was established. It's a classic problem and turns out as most of those tales do with many open wounds.
We see Marvel nearly collapse the industry in the last decade of the 20th century, and we see Marvel rise from those ashes less an arm of some random corporation and more a distinctive brand ready at long last maximize the potential for profits hidden in the chaos of its business practices.
This is a good solid read, at times a compelling one. It is highly recommended.