Sean Howe – Marvel Comics: The Untold Story
I’ve been interested in corporate histories recently, from Ron Chernow’s books on Rockefeller and Morgan to modern biographies of Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos. This is another one from that pile, though it also served the ulterior motive of familiarizing me with the Marvel Universe’s universe of characters in advance of seeing Avengers: Endgame. My Marvel fandom is decidedly casual, and I am unfamiliar with many of the characters’ origins and backstories. Adding to the confusion is that they are all interconnected in a larger universe.
This book also gives some background on just how much those characters and their universe reflect their time and place, from 1940s pulps to the national fascination with anything atomic in the 1950s and 1960s. The characters change and grow as the times do, and so does Marvel itself, which has frequently had to fend off bankruptcy as it periodically falls behind the times.
The company has been bought and sold several times over the years, and personalities clashes abound as art and commerce collide. Stan Lee turns his attention to Hollywood and being an ambassador of comics. Co-creator Jack Kirby gets nowhere near the credit he deserves, is stiffed financially, and leaves Marvel for its rival, DC Comics. Other writers also get screwed over, leading to a growing movement of independent companies.
As comics buyers grew up and had kids of their own, Marvel also had to add new titles, drop old ones, reboot stale characters that still had compelling attributes, and change its approach to hold onto its customers, and attract new ones. Progress is this department has been uneven at best; the comics world still isn’t exactly friendly territory for women or minorities, and some of the more hardcore fans are a little stunted—though they would likely still be that way had comic books never been invented. The companies slowly began to realize the goldmines they were ignoring, but many of their attempts are cringe-worthy. Things are better than they used to be, but this stunted male juvenile aspect of the business remains a work in progress.
This book is part business history, part explainer of the Marvel Universe, and part cultural history of 20th century America. That’s an ambitious scope for any book, but Howe pulls it off. He might have done a bit more on the business side, but this reader has no serious complaints. As with the best Marvel stories, I was entertained and educated at the same time.