Monday, April 21, 2014

Between Books - Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

One of my best days as a Disney fan was the company's purchase of Marvel Comics.  I have often joked that all Marvel has to do after the LucasFilm addition is buy the Chicago Cubs and they have all of me.  To be fair, I would need them to buy a lacrosse team too!  The Marvel purchase has re-energized me in my love of comics, and loving history I have been seeking more and more about Marvel's past.  Needless to say, the over 450 pages in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story gave me plenty to think about.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe is a history of Marvel Comics from it's creation amongst a world of magazines to the Disney purchase.  The story begins with Martin Goodman and his Timely Comics founded in 1939.  Goodman liked to change the names of his magazines, comics and companies often, which lead in 1961 to Goodman's comic arm becoming Marvel Comics.  It is also in 1961, when Marvel's fortunes were on the rocks that editor-in-chief Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby introduced The Fantastic Four to the public as Marvel's first real superhero comic.  With the success of this super team other new creations followed including Iron Man, Thor, Spider-Man, the Hulk and the super team Avengers.  But despite all of the success that this Marvel Age brought the company there were still squabbles over royalties, credit and artistic freedom in the halls of Marvel, which was far from Stan Lee's happy picture of the Marvel Bullpen.  With the fortunes of publishing often waning, Lee attempted to lead Marvel into Hollywood attempting to get Marvel characters on television and movies.  Due to poor creative and business choices, Marvel would become a target of other companies for purchase, eventually with Disney buying Marvel's impressive character catalog.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is massive.  And I have noticed amongst my friends who have read it, no one read it fast.  It is dense and full of information, so do not expect to sprint through this very detailed and clear book.  This one will take some time, in fact I have been reading it slowly over a few months.

I have never seen Mad Men, but this is how I picture it would be.  As the company becomes a critical success in the 1960's men in ties work at drafting tables making heroes come alive.  However, there is a seedier darker side where creators vie for attention and struggle to get paid.  Some of the saddest portions of this text is reading of the relational damage these men did to each other as they fought to make a dollar as contractors and Marvel sought to stay profitable often by shorting the men who brought them stories.  This Mad Men was followed by the drug induced images of the 1970's as Marvel's office included many creators enjoying youth and available drugs to explore. 

Of course, one of the key players in all of this is Stan Lee.  Lee wrote the stories, mostly or kinda. He created the Marvel method where he provided artists with outlines, allowed them to draw and then added text afterwards.  And he hired and fired the staff.  I know that there is much debate about how creative Lee actually was during the Marvel Age and if he rode on the coattails of others like Kirby.  And it saddens me to read in these pages of the arguments between the two over creative credit.  So as one reads of Lee's move from New York to California to seek Marvel's Hollywood fortune, it comes as no surprise that he abandoned the world of monthly creators to go somewhere that isolated him from the office politics of the New York office.  I do feel that Howe portrays Lee correctly, as someone who is not a devil and may have mixed his facts sometimes.  But it also appears that he often attempted to give credit to his creative partners and was as upset as them if stories were too Lee-centric.  Another aspect I had not considered about Lee was the impact that the work for hire rules had on him.  While Marvel paid him well as the face of the company, he also had surrendered royalties to his greatest creations to the company while producing them for Marvel's titles. 

One aspect that I found intriguing was the long progression to get Marvel comics into film.  Lee efforted for years as Marvel stories were in development hell.  And he had become familiar with Marvel movies dying before they could enter production.  I think today we have become some used to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that we would not even think to consider that it did almost never happen.  

I did find myself laughing as one sales director is quoted as saying, "Marvel is not Disney (Howe, 385)."  They most definitely are now!  Over a decade later they would be.  Marvel in that late 90s began to experiment with harder edgier titles like Alias about Jessica Jones.  Creators amped up the violence and adult situations attempting to bring in adult paying audiences.  I have found it interesting in my own looks at Disney to consider that it is a family entertainment company where Marvel is based on the popularity of action violence.  And in many ways while Disney today attempts to use Marvel to bring in young boy audiences, it is the one arm of the company that appears to be able to provide the most edge.  

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a must have for Disney fans who want to know more about all arms of the company and Marvel fans.  The tales found within its pages are not as black and white as the color comics that Marvel produces.  But it is a story of intrigue and men under pressure that many will be able to enjoy. 

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