Captain America comics 521.
(photo credit: Reuters)
It’s about time somebody wrote Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, and it looks
like Sean Howe was the right guy for the job. Howe’s clear-eyed history of the
heavyweight comicbook publisher is as full of colorful characters, tragic
reversals and unlikely plot twists as any book in the Marvel
That’s not coincidence: Half the time, the swindled, underpaid
writers, artists and editors were writing their grievances into the pages of the
One staffer’s piqued resignation letter ends up in
“The Avengers” as a farewell note from the team’s butler; only the names were
Without a definitive history of either of the “big two”
companies, DC or Marvel, unanswered accusations of unfairness and bad business
practices have piled up like so many unsold collectibles.
since 1963 of all things X-Men, Avengers and Spider-Man is now part of the Walt
Disney Company and has largely cleaned up its act, but what went on between
Marvel and talented creators like Jack Kirby (X-Men, Fantastic Four, Avengers,
Iron Man), Steve Ditko (Spider- Man, Daredevil) and Steve Gerber (Howard the
Duck) needs to be heard, especially with movies in theaters under the titles
“Marvel’s The Avengers” and “Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man,” as though the company
logo had written and drawn the stories. Here, Howe’s exhaustive muckraking lays
to rest myths on both sides of the company-vs-creator debate.
partisans will have a hard time defending the behavior of comics-hating
bottom-liners like Ron Perelman and Al Landau. But Howe also puts paid to the
frequently parroted claim that conflicts between valiant creators and soulless
bean counters are black-and-white struggles no more morally complicated than a
Thor-vs-Loki grudge match. Some of the Marvel talents are obviously hard to work
with and convinced of their own dubious genius; a few artists and writers
mistreated by higher-ups go on to become spitting images of their
Even Jim Shooter, a tin-pot tyrant hated so deeply by his
staff that they burned an effigy of him stuffed with unsold copies of his failed
pet project, isn’t entirely unsympathetic.
Howe recalls Shooter’s
impoverished childhood, his desperate love of comics and his terrorization as a
writer at the hands of legendarily cruel DC Comics editor Mort Weisinger, who
worked a 13- year-old Shooter half to death, all the while belittling him as a
Then there’s Marvel founding editor Stan Lee, alternately
pitiable and contemptible, who begins his career in the ’60s as a charismatic
editor running a pool of incredibly talented draftsmen – to whom he supplies
trademark overwrought dialogue and ripped-from-the-headlines stories – and fades
quickly into a succession of overpaid emeritus positions as he tries to break
Marvel staffers regard him as an inspiration, then a
stumbling block, then a joke, then – when collaborators like Kirby and Ditko
grow angry about his construction of a business empire around work they no
longer receive compensation for – a symbol of talentless greed.
they hadn’t seen anything yet.
The book’s penultimate section is a roll
call of sleazy ’80s and ’90s corporate vampires, from Mike Milken to Carl Icahn
to Perelman to Isaac Perlmutter, who nickel-and- dimes expense reports until
getting a billion-dollar-plus payout from Disney when Marvel finally goes
mega-corporate near the end of the book.
A back-issue-hoarding pedant
might take issue with a few of Howe’s decisions, and will do so now: There’s not
even a glancing mention of a few of Marvel’s oddest and best projects: Where is
humor title “Groo”? Where’s “Squadron Supreme,” into which beloved Marvel editor
Mark Gruenwald poured his soul and, posthumously, his ashes? (No lie –
Gruenwald’s ashes were mixed into the ink used to reprint the series as a
paperback.) There’s still a fascinating back-and-forth over Marvel’s hand in the
“Transformers” franchise for Hasbro – doesn’t that merit a line or two? None of
this should prevent anyone with even a passing interest in comics from picking
up Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. Most of the material here has gone woefully
under-reported by either the mainstream consumer press (uninterested) or the fan
press (sycophantic, poorly sourced, craven), and the book is filled with fond
remembrances and thrilling tales of people who deserve a truthful accounting of
their actions – right, wrong and in between.