Sunday 30 December 2012

In Praise of Marvel Comics The Untold Story

I have just finished reading a book I received for Christmas, Marvel Comics The Untold Story by Sean Howe, and it has been totally engrossing and a wonder to read.

At 437 illustration-free pages, and between hard covers, I'm grateful I had the holiday haitus to read it in, its bulk might have ruled it out as a travel read (it would have easily tipped me over Ryanair's hand-baggage allowance).

I'd love to recommend it to everyone, and being a proper book rather than something on a Kindle I can happily lend it to my friends who want a gander, but I'm not sure who would be as interested as me in what is, to a very great extent, a 400 page fanzine article.

That's not to say it's not well-written. It is very well written, and exhaustively so, listing hundreds of interviewees and people who've helped with research. It is expertly structured, drawing the reader through a narrative that remains compelling even through its hardest-to-follow events.

But those events are the 60-odd year history of Marvel comics. And who's interested in that?

Well, I am. And as I say I am unsure who else would be whose life had not been so influenced and intertwined with Marvel's. I read the comics as a child, and was one of a privileged generation of British kids in the 70s and 80s who were able to read reprints of the earliest Marvel classics from the 60s in weekly pocket-money comics at the same time as being able to buy the most exciting of the brand new comics fresh from the States. I then found myself writing and drawing for fanzines in the 80s as Marvel and the whole comic business went through an explosion of popularity and a creative revolution. And to top it all, in the 1990s, I wound up writing and drawing for Marvel comics, answering directly to the House Of Ideas in New York city.

And for most of this time I'd had a vague idea of what went on behind the scenes. In the 80s we read about the raw deal that had been given to the creators of these star characters, we knew Jack Kirby got nothing for being co-creator of everyone from the Fantastic Four & The Hulk to the Avengers & The X-Men, and that Steve Ditko was similarly hard done-by over Spider-Man. And in the 90s I knew, first hand, that the comics business was prone to ups and downs when I was on the wrong side of Marvel's filing for bankruptcy and was one of the two-thirds of the company's employees who found themselves suddenly out of work.

Now this book spells out in excruciating detail what went on behind the scenes. Great parts of the book are romantic and inspiring and make me want to rush to my desk and draw comics. (Indeed, when just one chapter into the book, I did just that and drafted half a dozen pages to a graphic novel/film proposal that I'd plotted a year ago). The story of how Stan Lee & Jack Kirby had gone from the highs of the wartime Captain America comics to the lows of the McCarthy era when, in the late 50s, Stan is given the job of firing most of the staff as the comics industry teeters on the brink of collapse, only for their little-noticed back-room not-quite-superhero comic The Fantastic Four to begin a renaissance in comics that no-one could have imagined, is a legend that deserves telling well and gets just treatment here.

The creative highs and lows and the struggle between the various waves of idealistic storytellers and money-minded executives is something that will come as no surprise to anyone who's read histories of any creative industry from the music business to Hollywood. And by the time we get to the 1970s, this book may start to shake off the attention of anyone who wasn't there at the time. But to someone who was a reader, as I was, it is a genuine revelation to me just what was going on behind the scenes. I guess, were this about about a car manufacturer or a chain of grocery stores, it would have no more nor less in the way of action and incident - and apart from a shocking number of people dying young, through stress or unhealthy lifestyle, this book is not full of events that would pass muster on even the dullest of soaps - but because it involves names I know well, comics that were the centre of my life, and a good few people I've subsequently met and worked with, it is riveting. I know things about, and have read stories from Jim Shooter, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, Sol Brodsky, Joe Quesada, Martin Goodman, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Steve Gerber, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Todd Macfarlane, Grant Morrison and dozens more  that I didn't know before and that I'm glad I do now.

As I think back over it to pick out anecdotes worth repeating, I'm finding myself thinking that no-one else might much care what Jack said to Stan on a radio phone-in in the 80s, or what bizarre suggestions various editors-in-chief made to writers over the years, or how come Vince Colletta ended up inking so many comic strips despite being the fans' least favourite. And I'm amazed at myself when the book gets to the corporate buyouts of the 1990s and what began as a story of bright young creators bustling with ideas that excited a generation turns into an arcane Financial Times article about leverages, buyouts and takeovers, and I'm still reading and enjoying it.

See if you imagine this sentence coming from an interesting book: "Perelman's various holding groups... filed for Chapter 11 protection in Wilmington Delaware: Mafco Holdings, which owned MacAndrews & Forbes, which owned Andrews Group, which owned Marvel III Holdings, which owned Marvel Parent Holdings, which owned Marvel Entertainment Group and Marvel Holdings." Well it does. Though I will concede it's not the book's most interesting sentence.

I feel proud to be part of Marvel's history. Not that I'm mentioned in the book or anything. But in the book we find Stan Lee in the late 60s asking colleagues "Why would you want to get into the comic book business?... the most you can say for the creative person in the business is that he's serving an apprenticeship to enter a better field". And ten years later we have Gerry Conway saying the same thing to fans at a con. Well now I say stuff like that to the kids I teach. And luckily, just like it did back then, it just makes them want to get into comics all the more. Comics are funny that way.

Congratulations to Sean Howe for dedicating himself to writing this book. I hope he will find a host of readers as satisfied by it as I am.

Marvel Comics The Untold Story, on Amazon

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