I have always been a fan of superheroes. As a child I would spend many hours in front of the television watching the cartoons for Spiderman, and my personal favourite, X-Men. The characters abilities were incredible and I was easily pulled into the soap opera narratives that powered their complicated universes. I recently read Marvel Comics: The Untold Story and had the pleasure of being transported back to the dawn of the Marvel Universe. Author Sean Howe presents a lurid account of the history of Marvel that dives into the lives of the founders, writers, artists, editors and various other employees who worked at the company from its inception up until present day. Far from being a sunny depiction, Howe examines the booms and busts of the industry, as well as the various conflicts that arose within Marvel over time.
Howe presents the facts about Marvel in a snappy and entertaining format. He pulled information from over 100 interviews and created a fast moving tale of betrayal and triumph. The book is helpfully broken up into 5 sections, each capping off a key period of change in Marvel’s history. One of the most interesting aspects of the book was the deconstruction of the cult of personality surrounding Stan Lee. Although his exuberance and ambition is inspirational, many of Lee’s decisions and actions were shifty, if not downright nasty; a revelation that shook my happy vision of the Marvel figurehead. In Stan Lee’s initial time as head of the company, he kept a vice like grip on the majority of his titles, writing most of the dialogue and stifling artistic creativity by forcing the artists of his major titles to draw exactly like Marvel’s top artist, Jack Kirby.
Comics have never been an easy business, particularly to creators looking to exert ownership rights over their work. Like most creative industries, the company owns whatever its employees create. However, artists began to speak out when it became clear that they were being chewed up and spit out. Howe details the ruthless treatment of long time Marvel artist, Jack Kirby. While other artists were able to gain some of their work back, as well as rights to their characters, Kirby consistently received the short end of the stick. Granted, Kirby fanned the flames of controversy by claiming he had created a whole slew of characters, some that he had, and others that he hadn’t. This exacerbated his relationship with Stan Lee, who was often publicly credited as the sole creative force behind Marvel.
The rules and battles surrounding content ownership forced many artists and writers to look out for their best interests. Job security was merely an illusion, leading to creatives constantly switching between comic giants, DC and Marvel, trying to secure better contracts that allowed for more freedom. Sick of the dominance Marvel and DC held over the industry, and unsatisfied with the current offerings of creative rights, young upstart and former Marvel artist, Todd McFarlane, led an uprising against Marvel in the 1990’s. He convinced many of its top creators to leave with him to start Image, a rival comic company.
Back at Marvel, periods of rampant creativity ebbed and flowed depending on who was in charge. Executives, who were only interested in making the company into an ever growing cash cow, overran Marvel in the 1980’s and 90’s. They successfully managed to squeeze out long time employees, such as Chris Claremont, whose complex style no longer matched company goals of producing lowest common denominator material. Claremont, who had written The Uncanny X-Men and made it a top seller, was essentially forced out of his job of 17 years. Disrespect didn’t just stop at the employees, Marvel also managed to completely upend the comic distribution industry, and implemented practices that suffocated comic stores…and nearly destroyed themselves in the process. Thankfully for Marvel, their attempts to break into Hollywood (Stan Lee’s life long dream) finally came into fruition in the 1990’s with the release of Blade, and there were many more blockbusters to follow.
Marvel has a fascinating history, and Howe’s book is an eye-opening look into the world of comics. Just like the characters and stories they constantly rebooted, Marvel has reinvented itself several times since its creation. Despite the ups and downs in a truly harsh industry, Marvel has emerged victorious, and bigger than anyone surely ever expected it could be.