In Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, author Sean Howe conducted over 100 interviews with employees past and present in an effort to present a comprehensive history of the comics giant.
Howe takes the reader through the company’s early years in the 40s and 50s before the explosion of popularity they would see in the 1960s. From there, things take a downturn in the 70s as the whole comic industry sees a dip in popularity. With the 80s, we get visionaries like Frank Miller, who take Marvel’s heroes into gritty territory before the commercial boom of the early 90s. While the company hovers close to bankruptcy in the late 90s, the course is corrected as the company soars into massive success before being sold to Disney for $4 billion in 2009.
One thing this book certainly did was challenge my opinion of Stan Lee. I’m not denying his talent and contributions to the industry (and pop culture in general), but I believe he got far too much credit for what he did – at least in terms of being a writer. During his time as editor (and head writer), he created what became known as The Marvel Method. With this style, Stan would meet with an artist and present him with a summary of what he wanted to happen in the story. The artist would then leave and draw the entire comic leaving the dialogue for Stan to complete when finished. While this was hugely successful for Marvel, it left Stan with the sole writing credit, which really isn’t fair. Simply filling in speech balloons should hardly count as being the lone writer, especially when Stan had only presented the artist with an idea of a plot and for that artist to then fully realize and flesh out the story.
That alone wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t also throw in the lack of royalties. Sure, ideas and plots are nice, but they’re nothing without the hard work of the artist. If you created a character while working for Marvel, they would retain complete creative control of the work after you left. They’d even sneak in fine print on your paychecks that by signing for the cheque, you would be handing over completed ownership to Marvel. After that, they were free to then take your creation and license it to the moon with toys, clothing, movies and other merchandise while you would never see a dime. This is a constant point of contention that is brought up again and again in the book – with good reason. It’s the main reason that artist Jack Kirby and Stan Lee never truly reconciled after their falling out in their early days.
While some people saw it as cheapening the art form, excessive licensing was probably for the best – especially when they entered into the 1970s and the comics industry as a whole took a dip in popularity. Howe explains how with television – in a mix of both live action and cartoons – allowed the characters to become part of the cultural zeitgeist. I bet in its wildest dreams Marvel could not have predicted the success they would have with the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) all those years later especially considering those film flops from their early years.
In the 80s, Howe discusses the popularity boom spearheaded in style by Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil as well as Marvel head honcho Jim Shooter’s penchant for cross-over and event series. Who could blame Shooter though (lots of people, apparently)? He was approached by Mattel to put together a story that would help them sell toys. The first time around is all right – even if the story is lacking – but to keep repeating this over and over so often, you run the risk of drying out the well, which when the 90s came around, actually happened when they put excessive profits over the importance of creative quality..
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is the true definition of a “deep-dive” into a subject. Almost everything you could ever want to know about the publishing and entertainment juggernaut is contained between the covers here. While I did find a lot of the talk about numbers and sales a tad dull at times, it makes up for it with the constant infighting and internal politics.