Monday, 10 August 2015

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe Review


I’m gonna do something a little different here: I’ll review the book properly first, then talk generally about what I read. These post-review comments are peripheral to the review, so I’ll keep them separate. They’re just things that interested me and might be interesting to others who haven’t read this, might not read this, but are into Marvel comics. I’ll tell you when I switch. 

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The review: 

Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a comprehensive look at the company that was founded as Timely Comics in 1939, became Atlas Comics, and then eventually settled on Marvel Comics. It’s the company that gave us Captain America, Namor the Submariner, and The Human Torch in the Golden Age, and then, as Marvel Comics, the iconic characters: the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, Doctor Strange, Iron Man, the Avengers, the X-Men, and Spider-Man. 

The best nonfiction books compel readers whether they’re interested in the subject matter or not; Howe’s book is not that. You definitely have to be deeply invested in the subject of Marvel Comics to enjoy this book because, wow, is there a ton of detail here! Most of it is pretty boring too. So and so didn’t get on with so and so, they created this character in an afternoon, made this comic in a weekend, nobody gave a shit, blah blah blah. It's very dull stuff and the minutiae of who worked on what book when has very esoteric appeal. 

Once you get to the modern age, the 2000s, there’s almost no detail here whatsoever, which makes sense because of course the detail is all from the 50s and 60s - everyone from that time is dead or nearly there themselves, so who gives a shit? People today? They still have careers and we won’t get the gossipy stories behind this time for another few decades. Though that said, gossipy stories in comics, as this book proves, are pretty dry in themselves. People not getting along, cheap product being pushed, etc. 

As you would expect, Howe’s book is a sad story of creators who made art, sold them to the corporation for a pittance, and the corporation made billions while the creator lived in poverty. What comes across most strongly is how little the people at Marvel gave a shit about the comics themselves. Almost from day 1 the plan seemed to be to make the comics as a stepping stone to what the true goal was: movies and merchandise and money money money! Well, they got there, and the book ends with the success of the first Avengers movie conquering the box office. 

There is a lot of detail here which, if you’re a huge fan, you’ll definitely enjoy. I’m a casual fan and I felt it to be a bit too much, especially as I’m not a fan of the Golden or Silver Ages lines of comics of which the bulk of the book is about. But you’ll learn a lot and though it’s slow and ponderous, it’s very edifying. That warning again: Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is ONLY for comics fans; everyone else will be bored stupid! 

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That was the review - here are some thoughts on the subject matter. 

My take on the self-mythologizing egotist Stan Lee: I didn’t care for Lee before I read this book but, afterwards, now I definitely dislike him. He got the job at Timely because he was the boss’s nephew. He didn’t see comics as an art form, just a means to make some cash before he launched his career as a novelist/playwright/Hollywood screenwriter/actor/director. Ha! Have you read any of Stan Lee’s drivel? Here’s something he wrote to Marvel readers when the company was briefly purchased by a fly-by-night outfit called New World: 

“The young, hip, fun-loving guys who run New World dig Marvel Comics as much as you do! That’s why they bought us! They want to make some real dynamite movies and TV shows based on all your favorite characters… I don’t wanna sound like I’m trying to snow you, so I’ll just mention two of their latest smashes - the movie Soul Man and the TV series Sledge Hammer. ‘Nuff said?”

If you look up the word “tool” in a dictionary you’ll see Lee’s grinning mug. And really, his shit comics were the best he could do. He was never destined to be a great writer because he wasn’t one. He made terrible comics and dreamt dreams of better things like the rest of us. He was lucky he made his name with the comics he looked down on otherwise he’d be a total unknown! 

What’s really unforgivable though is the way Lee treated his co-creators and artists. For example: in the early days of Marvel, Stan Lee created what would become known as the “Marvel style” of writing as he was at that point the sole writer of the entire line! A page or two of outline would be handed to one of the artists – Jack Kirby, John Romita, Steve Ditko – who would then flesh it out into a 20+ page comic. Lee would then go back and fill in the word balloons and captions depending on what was happening in the panel. 

Today, the artist would be given a co-writer credit because that’s what they did: took a rough premise and fashioned a story out of it, breaking it down into panels and pages. Because that’s what modern comics scripts do, a page of script per page of comic, within that page are panel breakdowns, captions, and notes to the artist for what’s happening. Take those away and the artist then has to do that – become the writer, as it were. 

Not back then. Ditko, Kirby, et al. were never given co-writer credits and were only ever listed as artists. What made it worse was that the PT Barnum-esque Stan Lee often claimed that he was the creator of characters like Spider-Man and the Hulk, frequently ignoring and downplaying the contributions of the artist co-creators entirely. In these early days when artists like Kirby were leaned on to make the deadlines for less dependable artists, there’s a definite case to be made that there wouldn’t even be a Marvel Comics today without the likes of Kirby – Stan Lee couldn’t draw and nobody would pay to read just his shoddy prose – and still the artists were denigrated. 

Sure, there also wouldn't be a Marvel without Stan Lee's efforts. I understand why he chased movies and TV so hard - success there would help the ailing comics market and allow it to continue and prosper - and he put in countless hours into broadening the appeal of the brand, as well as writing so many comics. But I can't reconcile the fact that he was so well recompensed (Stan Lee’s salary from Marvel was (is?) $500k a year for life) in sharp contrast to the artists who got shafted, nor was his behaviour towards them anything less than unacceptable. 

Steve Gerber, creator of Howard the Duck, put it best in a letter to The Comics Journal: 

“Stan was responsible for a massive infusion of creativity into the industry twenty years ago but he is also the man who, under the protective umbrella of Marvel company policy, has robbed Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and others of the credit due them as creators for those same twenty years.”

Stan Lee on the 1970s Ms Marvel redesign: “Why didn’t you bring me this one first? This is what I’m after… tits and ass”

Hack Chris Claremont misunderstanding and being an asshole to his audience: “Rarely will you find among fans, comic or SF, a magnificent physical specimen of humanity. Because if you’re that good mentally or physically, you don’t need the fantasy - the reality’s good enough.”

What I learned about Jim “Trouble” Shooter: We have Shooter to thank for: 1) Event Comics, which started with his abysmal Secret Wars, a storyline designed to sell toys, 2) Tie-In Comics, where entire lines would have to halt and come up with an issue that ties into an event comic for no reason other than MONEY, and 3) Death Comics, where he realised he could sell more comics if he killed off the main character, so all these “Death of (Insert Character Name Here)” titles are down to this douchebag! 

DC were doing so poorly in the early 80s they at one point began negotiating to give Marvel the rights to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, New Teen Titans, The Legion of Superheroes, and Justice League of America - can you imagine if that deal had gone through!! 

My dislike of Scott Lobdell is vindicated. He was a struggling stand up comic who got the job of staff writer at Marvel purely because he could hit deadlines; talent didn’t come into it. Oh and unbelievably, in the early 90s when the comics market was going crazy, he was earning $85k A MONTH! That said, the guys at Image like Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane were literally earning millions. MILLIONS. For unreadable drek! 

Bill Jemas gave us some truly awful comics like Wolverine: Origin and Marville and is the reason why Grant Morrison left Marvel for good after his New X-Men run, but the loudmouth dickhead did do some good. He gave us the Ultimate universe, which made the company a lot of much-needed money back in the day, and gave us the MAX line (an adult Marvel line that allowed swearing, nudity and graphic violence). The best thing he did though was tell the Comics Code Authority to fuck off once and for all. When he did that, everyone followed suit and by 2011 that toxic body, the CCA, was no more. 

Michael Jackson once thought about purchasing Marvel. 

Marvel really aren’t about the comics, even today. Comics are a means to an end. Avi Arad, the guy who’s responsible for a number of Marvel movies getting made before Marvel became their own studio: 

“Publishing was where it all started, and it was great source. You had ready-made storyboards to look at, to understand how to lay out stories. But the big deal for the company was merchandising - everything from cereals to shirts to video games to shoes, you name it. That’s where the serious revenues were coming from.”

The final word has to go to Frank Miller who paid tribute to Jack Kirby who died in 1994. That year, Miller delivered the keynote speech at an industry seminar in Baltimore and he was so on point. 

“An age passes with Jack Kirby. I can’t call it the Marvel Age of comics because I don’t believe in rewarding thievery. I call it the Jack Kirby age of comics.”

Miller went on to say that the only way to talk about the future of comics is to talk about its “sad, sorry, history of broken lives… of talents denied the legal ownership of what they created with their own hands and minds, ignored or treated as nuisances while their creations went on to make millions and millions of dollars.”

“Marvel Comics is trying to sell you all on the notion that characters are the only important component of its comics. As if nobody had to create these characters, as if the audience is so brain-dead they can’t tell a good job from a bad one. You can almost forgive them this, since their characters aren’t leaving in droves like the talent is. For me it’s a bit of a relief to finally see the old ‘work-made-for-hire talent don’t matter’ mentality put to the test. We’ve all seen the results, and they don’t even seem to be rearranging the deck chairs.”

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

2 comments:

  1. Just as a side note to keep in mind, comics at the time marvel was founded, and really not until the early 1970s, were viewed almost strictly as a product, including by the artists. William Gaines (of EC Comics) spoke about how hard it was to break his artists and writers out of this production mentality. Despite all of Lee's shortcomings, he took the risk of throwing out the play book and redefining the big picture as to what level of emotion and maturity the comic book can handle. If you want an example of this, just pick up any DC comic from the 1960s and follow it by reading any Marvel comic from the same time. There is almost no comparison. Stan Lee wrote in the Marvel style because in the early days there was no other option. The comic medium was practically dead after the fallout of the congressional hearings of the 1950s and there was no money in comics anymore Anyone who still had a job had to wear a lot of hats. Steve Ditko was known to produce as many as five pages a day in the late 50s for Charlton because the pay scale had shrunken so significantly during that time. Kirby was able to survive for the same reason. It wasn't that Kirby was necessarily seen as one of the industry greats at that time, it was that he could produce enough to make money. Stan Lee knew that it was all done unless he reinvented it and made it all big, which entailed selling himself, the characters and the comics. Why he didn't stand up for Jack's art, I don't know. But without Stan it's highly possible that superhero comics would have stayed with same Archie type of formula that DC was doing until the early 1970s.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Just as a side note to keep in mind, comics at the time marvel was founded, and really not until the early 1970s, were viewed almost strictly as a product, including by the artists. William Gaines (of EC Comics) spoke about how hard it was to break his artists and writers out of this production mentality. Despite all of Lee's shortcomings, he took the risk of throwing out the play book and redefining the big picture as to what level of emotion and maturity the comic book can handle. If you want an example of this, just pick up any DC comic from the 1960s and follow it by reading any Marvel comic from the same time. There is almost no comparison. Stan Lee wrote in the Marvel style because in the early days there was no other option. The comic medium was practically dead after the fallout of the congressional hearings of the 1950s and there was no money in comics anymore Anyone who still had a job had to wear a lot of hats. Steve Ditko was known to produce as many as five pages a day in the late 50s for Charlton because the pay scale had shrunken so significantly during that time. Kirby was able to survive for the same reason. It wasn't that Kirby was necessarily seen as one of the industry greats at that time, it was that he could produce enough to make money. Stan Lee knew that it was all done unless he reinvented it and made it all big, which entailed selling himself, the characters and the comics. Why he didn't stand up for Jack's art, I don't know. But without Stan it's highly possible that superhero comics would have stayed with same Archie type of formula that DC was doing until the early 1970s.

    ReplyDelete