Friday, December 28, 2012

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe

I've read a lot of material about the history of the comic book industry. Sean Howe's book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story covers a lot of stuff I already knew from various magazines and books--the appendix is littered with references to TwoMorrows publications--but he lays outs the relationships and business dealings in a linear timeline that makes it easier to understand how certain things happened at Marvel Comics. The comics industry is always in a boom-bust cycle--it appeared to be dying when Stan Lee created the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man with Kirby and Ditko. Sean Howe does a good job of illuminating what was going on around Lee at this time, with his uncle, publisher Martin Goodman, shuffling him off to toil away on a desk while the rest of Magazine Management (including Mario Puzo and Bruce Jay Friedman) looked down on him (while publishing smutty mens magazines). The five big eras of Marvel are covered: the 60s era with the rise of the classic Silver Age Marvel heroes; the 70s era which ushered in a new wave of creators like Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin, Steve Gerber, and Don McGregor; the Jim Shooter editor in chief era, along with the rise of Chris Claremont and John Byrne; the 90s comic "boom" and the defection of the Image founders; and the resurrection of Marvel in the 2000s, led by Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada. Reading all of this was like reliving all these eras as a fan.

I was really illuminated by a number of stories here: Martin Goodman's rise, in the depression era, having started with literally nothing and publishing pulp magazines, which led to publishing comics.  A totally self-made man in the depression era, for Goodman the comics was a lucky extension of his pulp magazines and something that seemed to wane after the disastrous 1950s era.  The utter disdain of Stan Lee by his contemporries and later by Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, with the issue of creation coming up over and over again.  How bad the sales were during the 1970s, my personal favorite era, but which led to the creation of the direct sales market.  The sad deaths of several people in the industry, such as Mark Gruenwald, John Verpooten, etc.  How creativity has been wrested away from writers to editorial to marketing over the years, now to the point where almost nothing being made is worth reading.

I liked reading about the struggles of various creators to get their copyrights back, involving Joe Simon, Steve Gerber, etc.  Some of the insight on Steve Gerber came from Mary Skrenes, his girlfriend & co-writer on Omega the Unknown. I wished we had more dirt of the settlement that Gerber struck in his Howard the Duck lawsuit, but that's not here. What you do get is a good description of Stan Lee's compensation, which is astronomical compared to anyone else, all the more strange because he was utterly detached from the business after the 1970s.

There has been some interesting commentary on this book since it was published last October.  Bob Greenberger wrote a review where he noted that Howe missed connecting the dots on Marvel's failure to merchandise their characters properly back in the 1960s.  One fascinating anecdote surrounds the Howard the Duck for President campaign and button in 1976--Gerber licensed the merchandising right from Marvel for a small fee and made some good money on those buttons.  Comic Geek Speak podcast had a lengthy interview with Sean Howe where they discussed different sections of the book in detail.

I think this book belongs on the shelf of any Marvel Comics fan.  For the die-hard fan, you may have read some of this history in other publications, but I am sure there are bits of history here which you never knew before, and it's nice to have everything laid out in a chronological order.  Now I would love it if Howe would do a companion volume on DC Comics, too.  Nuff Said!


  1. I recently came across a notice in one of the old "Bullpen Bulletins" pages that took roughly half the page to mention the passing of John Verpoorten, who if memory serves did some inking on a fair number of titles. Such "behind the scenes" people at Marvel are fascinating to read up on in books like Howe's. I mentioned in another comment elsewhere about being hesitant to pick up this book because I was afraid it would be too much of a splash of cold water in my face as far as the skeletons in Marvel's closet were concerned, but my curiosity is slowly getting the better of me. :)

  2. I'm about halfway through the book, just getting to Shooter's ascension to EiC. You're right, Richard, in that there is a lot of information previously published in other sources that is used here; however, there are (as you said) certainly enough nuggets of new stuff to make this a great read. It's definitely a page turner. I'm looking forward to the second half of the book, as I imagine it will contain more anecdotes that are new for me.

    Thanks for the write-up!

    Happy New Year --


  3. Thanks for the feedback! Comicsfan, the sections about Verpooten were very good, I always wanted to know more about that man. He had a very stressful life which led to his early death. Doug, now you are getting to some juicy material in the Shooter years. I do encourage you to listen to that CGS podcast, Howe talks about trying to contact Shooter for an interview. Shooter appears to have dropped off the internet--if you recall his blog was very popular a couple of years ago where he gave his version of his Marvel history. Then all of a sudden it stopped dead. This is about the time that Howe tried to contact him and couldn't get a response.

    1. On a somewhat related note, I enjoyed reading Mr. Shooter's take on Verpoorten's duties--as well as your back-and-forth with him in the comments, Richard. Fascinating stuff.