Marvel Comics: The Untold Story
Harper, (c) 2012
Karen: First thing: Hi. We're back. After our semi-vacation, it seemed like a good idea to get back in the saddle with a review of this book, which has been the talk of the comics blogosphere for a few months now. I read it back in November (although I've done some flipping back through it to refresh my memory), and Doug read it over the Christmas holiday. I know several of you were also reading it the last couple of months. So it's probably time to discuss it now. We're going to split our review into two parts; this first part will cover the events prior to Jim Shooter becoming editor in chief, and the second part will cover Shooter's reign and after.
Doug: For those of you who've not read this book, I'd strongly recommend it. It's an easy read, very accessible. It's a big one at 400 pages, but it really breezed by for me.
Karen: The book is well-written and Howe does an excellent job of providing attributions for all his quotes, something often sadly lacking in other comics-related books. While I was reading it, I couldn't put it down. However, after finishing the book, my foremost takeaway is that sometimes it's best not to know what's going on behind the scenes. It's that old adage about the sausage-making. Now admittedly I had heard many of the stories recounted here already. But there were a fair number of new accounts I hadn't heard, and all in all, I walk away from this perhaps a little sadder than before.
|Stan "The Man" Lee, 1960's|
|Jack "King" Kirby, 1980's|
Doug: As far as the Martin Goodman stuff goes (and I'll go further to add the relationships between Joe Simon and Jack Kirby to Stan Lee), I think any of the Marvel histories (Ro's, Les Daniels' Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics), and the Stan Lee biographies by George Mair (Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee), and Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon (Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book) do an equal job of detailing Timely Comics' Golden Age and metamorphosis into Atlas Comics -- and the demise of the industry post-Wertham.
|Steve Ditko, 1960's|
|Roy Thomas, early 1970's|
Doug: Howe reported that many of the artists at Stan's disposal as Marvel was re-energizing in the early 1960's really eschewed the Marvel Method. Stan went looking for artists who had been writers to help ease the creative blocks some of the guys were faced with when given the freedom to plot and pace on their own. I thought this anecdote further elevated Kirby and Ditko as forces of nature at early Marvel, and perhaps served to inflate their egos (maybe even justifiably so). And the episode you mention about Kirby's original art? That's one of the accounts in the book that both saddened and maddened me.
|Gerry Conway, c. 1973|
Doug: Did you notice that Howe stuck in an editorial comment here and there? One I recall specifically was his line, "The concept for the new Daredevil was not remarkable". Personally, I thought Daredevil as a concept was pretty unique and enjoyed many issues of the title through the years (yes, yes, I know there were some definite lulls along the way).
Karen: I don't mind a few editorial remarks -the writer has to have a bit of a voice-and in this case, I tend to agree with him! I don't think Howe went overboard though. For that, you'd have to see the Marvel Comics in the 1970s tome by Pierre Comtois.
Doug: Yes, I have both of the Comtois volumes (available from TwoMorrows), and to be honest you scared me away from reading them. For the most part you and I see eye-to-eye, and I didn't feel like taking the punishment. One of these days I probably will, and we can do another BAB Book Review for our readers' benefits.
Karen: I certainly didn't mean to drive you away from those books, but the second one in particular was a frustrating read. But you should judge for yourself. But back in the bullpen, Lee was bringing in other writers, like Gary Friedrich and notably Roy Thomas. But the writers were trying to emulate Lee, just as the artists had been told to emulate Kirby. I was surprised to hear that even in the late 60s, Thomas had decided to not truly invest himself in creating new characters, as he could never actually own them or make a profit from them. More writers, like Gerry Conway, came aboard, but the period around 1968-1970 seems like a bit of a rut, as Kirby was pulling back, Lee was starting to move on to other things, and the new guys were trying to find their way, all the while trying to maintain the status quo. It was only with the arrival of an influx of new blood that Marvel really began to experiment and flower again.
Doug: One of the interesting habits Howe exhibited in the book was informing the reader of the ages of many of the creators discussed. I think most of our readers know that Stan Lee and Gerry Conway both started with Marvel when they were 19-year olds, but I didn't know just how young several other pros were. One has to wonder if the immaturity brought on by a lack of life and/or work experiences may have contributed a bit to the discord that seemed to dominate the freelancers and editorial staff in the 1970's. Personally, I don't think Jack Kirby ever got past the fact that Stan had begun as an office boy. Late in the book (and we'll address this in greater detail next Tuesday when we conclude our discussion of this history), Kirby repeatedly refers to Lee as "Stanley". While that's obviously his real name, it seemed condescending.
Karen: It was definitely condescending, and I think you're right, he always looked down upon Lee. The same with Roy Thomas ('Houseroy').
|Len Wein, 1970's|
Karen: I think it was a rut if you look at the mainstream titles. There was just no real movement, no real excitement, in some of the bigger titles, like the FF. I think Marvel was transitioning. People had to find their own voice, their own style, and move away from just staying with the same old thing.
|Steve Englehart, c. 1982|
Karen: Howe depicts the early to mid 70s at Marvel as both exciting and chaotic, a sort of the 'inmates running the asylum' scene.I was not surprised by the amount of drug use by certain artists and writers, as I had heard about this before. What was more interesting to read about was how there were divisions among the second generation of talent, with people like Conway, Len Wein, and Marv Wolfman falling into the more mainstream camp, and Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin, Steve Gerber and others falling into the more counter-culture group. Also, the constant struggle by some for the editor in chief hat was something I'd only heard mention of before, but here, Howe lays it out in detail. Most of the 'mainstream' guys were all, at one time or another, editor in chief, no matter how brief. After Roy Thomas' hands-off policy, all of the EIC's to follow tried to be more involved, but wrangling the free spirits at Marvel proved to be a daunting task. Ultimately Jim Shooter would be the one to impose order over the Marvel staff, but some might ask at what cost?
Doug: The period leading up to our personal halfway mark was just one big dysfunctional mess. Again, as I said above, I think the fact that many of these guys were young 20-somethings had quite a bit to do with it -- none of these newer guys had much if any college (I am, in some cases, making assumptions), nor any real-world work experience. Suddenly thrust into positions of either authority or as care-takers of the creations of their boyhood idols, these young Turks didn't always handle it (or themselves) well. You're exactly right about the EiC merry-go-round. We could probably sum it up just by mentioning that Conway held the position for less than a month before resigning. And before he'd taken it, Thomas had been offered it for a second time, and had turned it down.
Karen: Despite the utter chaos behind the scenes, I still feel that the period of 1972 to about 1976 produced some of the very best material to come out of Marvel. All that freedom was certainly a double-edged sword, but without Thomas letting guys like Englehart and Starlin cut loose, we might never have had the Celestial Madonna, or Thanos getting the Cosmic Cube, or the Secret Empire saga, and so many other great stories and characters.
Doug: Another bit of luster that was lost for me was the manner in which economics drove seemingly every decision, personnel-wise and creatively. I'm not so naive as to fail to grasp that Marvel Comics was an enterprise in itself, and even more so a small piece of a larger company. But to hear some of the creators tell how they were encouraged to do this, or do that, often with not a thought toward cogent storylines was disheartening. I'll tell you, there are a lot of books that we've enjoyed sharing together on the BAB through the years that may have more of a backstory than I ever cared to know. Some of the scripting had teeth in it, and other times the ways and angles stories moved weren't necessarily organic. This is probably my takeaway from the first part of the book; that, and the way Kirby was perceived and treated upon his "The King is Back!" third stint for the company in the mid-'70's. I felt blue...