I have spent the last few days totally immersed in the wonderful new book by Sean Howe, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. It's probably one of the best--and seemingly most honest--histories of comics I've ever read. To use that tired old phrase "warts and all" seems almost insulting. In some cases it's a wart that has been removed, only to be scabbed over and picked at again and again.
Don't get me wrong: the book does NOT resort to idle gossip or evil conjecture about any of the writers, artists, and editors who created Marvel Comics as we know it today (and over the past 50 years since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, et al, launched Fantastic Four #1 where this book basically begins). Everything is scrupulously documented. Howe conducted numerous interviews with the people involved. It's short of being an oral history, but its chronological format puts you into the offices of Marvel--and the fabled Marvel Bullpen, even when it was just a desk in the beginning--over the years. We go from those nothing-to-lose early days in the swinging '60s, through the Roy Thomas years of the '70s, into the contentious Jim Shooter years of the '80s. The '90s are particularly interesting, as the young turks of Image Comics stake their claim and make their fame on the Marvel characters, then take off to start their own company. Marvel almost self-immolates in that decade, caught up in the fervor of variant covers and mega-sales dwindling to almost no sales. And then in the 2000s, Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas--along with Avi Arad in Hollywood--bring Marvel back from the brink, all the while strip-mining the legacy of Lee, Kirby, Steve Ditko, and everyone else from those halcyon days of the 60s.
There are fascinating tidbits in the book, like Stan Lee going on (in 1971) about the business of comics:
“I would say that the comic book market is the worst market that there is on the face of the earth for creative talent and the reasons are numberless and legion. I have had many talented people ask me how to get into the comic book business. If they were talented enough the first answer I would give them is, ‘Why would you want to get into the comic book business?’ Because even if you succeed, even if you reach what might be considered the pinnacle of success in comics, you will be less successful, less secure and less effective than if you are just an average practitioner of your art in television, radio, movies or what have you. It is a business in which the creator, as was mentioned before, owns nothing of his creation. The publisher owns it….”
The above quote is from Howe's excellent and exhaustive Tumblr site. His book has two small photos, one at the beginning and one at the end, because, after all, it is unauthorized (and thank god for that!). On Tumblr, Howe has assembled a treasure trove of great images from the comics and a ton of other sources. Consider it to be the official companion to the book.
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story ranks up there with the best of comics histories. It's a stunning achievement, one sure to be up for awards next year. It's also compulsively readable, like a great novel. MCTUS is about the business of comics and how one small, upstart company with nothing to lose changed the face of American comic books forever--for better or worse. That part's up to your personal point of view. Either way, Howe's book will give you all the information needed to form an opinion, all the while entertaining and enlightening you.