Life, as depicted in the pages of Marvel Comics, is full of heroes and villains. Reading Sean Howe's new behind-the-scenes history of the venerable publishing house that brought you Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, and others, you begin to appreciate why. For although Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a spirited account of a group of creative misfits taking on a staid industry giant, DC, and triumphing, it's also the familiar tale of management prevailing over labor, of the suits crushing the talent. It's the story, in other words, of how the villains won.
Founded in 1939 by Martin Goodman, a Brooklyn-born son of Russian immigrants, and initially called Timely Comics, Marvel began as just another imprint of a lowly pulp magazine startup. It wasn't until 1961, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby revolutionized comics with the inaugural issue of The Fantastic Four—their tale of a squad of reluctant, bickering do-gooders—that the brand as we know it was born. In Howe's telling, however, the history of Marvel is also a series of artists and writers cheated out of their due credit and compensation. No wonder Marvel's tortured characters have always projected a certain Sturm und Drang lacking in their more upright DC counterparts like Superman. Howe reveals the Marvel workplace—falsely advertised to its loyal readers as a genial "Bullpen"—to be a nervous, backstabbing, near-gladiatorial arena, where petty office politics frequently spilled onto the pages in barely concealed form.
Nobody in comics ever got a rawer deal than Kirby, and Howe devotes some key passages to his sad case. A titan of the medium, revered for his bold linework and anxious nuclear-age compositions, he lingers even today in the shadow of Lee, the writer and impresario with whom he collaborated during Marvel's heyday, the 1960s. Together with Lee, "King" Kirby invented practically every canonical character in the Marvel universe. (The notable exception was Spider-Man, drawn by Kirby's contemporary and rival, Steve Ditko, an Ayn Rand enthusiast who, as Howe explains, occasionally used Spidey as a Randian mouthpiece.) And yet Kirby was treated throughout his career as a permatemp, denied not just the copyrights to the characters he had created, but possession of his own original drawings—which he would regularly see for sale, at eye-popping prices, at conventions.
Although Howe's focus is the travails of these artists and writers, he also makes many smart observations about the comics themselves. Writing about the "Marvel Method"—the practice of "drawing an issue before there was a script," which resulted in more dynamic imagery and pacing—he notes that it freed the showboating Lee, the public face if not the owner of Marvel, "to devote more time to his secondary position—comics' ambassador to the world." Thus, The Untold Story represents an invaluable resource for the Marvel diehard—an engrossing, gossipy, comprehensive collection of anecdotes about the making of their favorite alternate world. The question is, why should those who don't already know their Thing from their Thor care?
The Untold Story falls short of explaining the significance of Marvel Comics to an audience broader than the fanboys. That's too bad, because it arrives at a time when comic books, and their associated merchandise, occupy a larger place in American popular culture than ever before. On the one hand, superheroes have become positively respectable, with some of our finest authors—Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon leap to mind—weaving Marvel mythology into their novels. On the other hand, Marvel today is less a publishing empire than a global licensing behemoth. The inane blockbuster movies to which the company lends its name—not to mention backpacks, lunchboxes, and Pez—bear little resemblance to the angsty pages I held in my hands during the late 1970s and early 80s, a time when Marvel Comics, past its prime but enjoying a renaissance, appealed pretty exclusively to bullied pipsqueaks like me. Or as Chris Claremont, the acclaimed writer who penned The Uncanny X-Men in that era, put it, Wolverine is "short actually. Not like the movie at all."
Marvel's relentless rebooting of its titles, in print and in cinema, has made a mockery of the narrative continuity that was once a hallmark of the house style. Three different actors in the last nine years have portrayed three different versions of Hulk, and it's gotten so bad that the Human Torch and Captain America, both played by the actor Chris Evans, are apparently the same person. As Howe concludes: "Multiple manifestations of Captain America and Spider-Man and the X-Men float in elastic realities, passed from one temporary custodian to the next, and their heroic journeys are, forever, denied an end." Long live, I guess, the tall, dark, and handsome Wolverine.
A former editor at Fanzine, Benjamin Strong has written for the Village Voice, the Believer, and Slate.