Rudy Panucci On Pop Culture

A Marvelous History Lesson

The PopCult Bookshelf 

Marvel Comics The Untold Story
by Sean Howe
Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-0-06-199210-0
$26.99

Sean Howe has crafted a meticulous and fascinating history of one of the most powerful forces in Pop Culture, Marvel Comics. In “Marvel Comics The Untold Story,” Howe goes back to the 1930s and traces the origins of the company that would become Marvel. We learn about the superhero boomed during World War II. Then Howe guides us through the lean years of the 1950s to the glory days of the Jack Kirby/Stan Lee collaborations of the 1960s, the influx of wild young talent in the 1970s and the corporate machinations and comedies of error that almost sank Marvel in the 1980s and early 90s. The book ends with Marvel’s acquisition by Disney in 2009, and the detail is phenomenal.

If you’re curious about the creation of The Fantastic Four, Spider-man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, The Avengers and the rest of the Marvel roster of heroes, you’ll find it all in here. It’s not a sanitized version of what happened, either.

This is a warts-and-all telling of the Marvel saga. We get both sides of the controversy over whether Stan Lee or Jack Kirby was the driving creative force behind the company’s 1960s rise as the top comic book brand. We learn what drugs the writers and artists were taking in the 1970s, when they were producing “cosmic” stories. We are also privy to lots and lots of intra-office gossip, back-stabbing and personality clashes.

Marvel’s long and varied history of screwing creators out of fair compensation for their creations is laid bare in Howe’s book. From Kirby to Steve Gerber to the mass exodus or artists that became Image Comics, Marvel’s shoddy treatment of their talent is presented in excrutiating detail.

Readers will also be treated to the stories behind Marvel’s licensed hits of the 1970s, including Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian, and the almost Shakespearean fall of Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, Jim Shooter, in the 1980s. There’s lots of corporate shenanigans covered in this book.

Part of this story is Marvel’s long road to Hollywood success. With their forays into television in the 1970s, the company made an imprint on mass media, but it wasn’t until the first X Men movie that the floodgates opened and Marvel proved viable on the silver screen. One hysterical aside tells how New World Pictures purchased Marvel, thinking that they were getting Superman (the iconic lead character of Marvel’s competitor, DC Comics).

“Marvel Comics The Untold Story” is a must-have book for any fan of comic book history. It’s meaty and covers almost every aspect of the comics industry.   Much of the book is based on interviews conducted by Howe between 2008 and 2012, but the fact that there are twenty pages of footnotes shows that this book also owes a lot to the works of others.

You have to give Howe credit for including attribution–many other recent comic book histories have not–but much of the material in this book will be familiar to fans of TwoMorrows Publishing, who publish a line of books devoted to comic books, along with magazines like Alter Ego, Back Issue and The Jack Kirby Collector (full disclosure here: while I have never written for TwoMorrows, my name is in the two most recent issues of TJKC as a member of the Kirby Museum).

I’m not accusing Howe of any wrongdoing here. His book is extensively footnoted and brings the history of Marvel Comics together in a brilliantly written narrative. “Marvel Comics The Untold Story” is an in-depth corporate biography and a first-class work of journalism. There are loads of revelations in this book.

“Marvel Comics The Untold Story” is the definitive story of Marvel Comics. No authorized book could be so frank about the controversies and inside stories of how Marvel became the number one comic book company in the world. Weighing in at well over four-hundred pages, “Marvel Comics The Untold Story” is as sprawling an epic story as any that Marvel ever published.

1 Comment

  1. Stephen Beckner

    Image Comics proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that great artists aren’t necessarily great writers. Or even mediocre writers. Yes, I mean McFarlane.

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