Friday, February 1, 2013

BAB Book Review: Marvel Comics - The Untold Story, part one

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story
Sean Howe
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
Doug:  I'll jump right on the citations bandwagon.  While Howe doesn't provide direct footnotes or references for many of his quotes, most are attributed as Karen said, and there are lengthy notes and resource sections at the conclusion of the book.  What was so painfully lacking in Ronin Ro's Tales to Astonish is fully on display here in Howe's book.  I'll also agree with Karen's assessment of this book sometimes bursting bubbles.  I think we've all known for quite some time that the Marvel Bullpen was a complete fabrication created by Stan to draw in readers and turn them into fans.  Many of the anecdotes that Howe relates show the Marvel offices to be small in space and staff, with freelancers happening by every so often.  While I've heard that there is some truth to the story conferences held between Stan and his artists, as seen in Daredevil Annual #1 for example, the image that many of us have of Stan leaping about on his desk and on coffee tables was much more the exception than the norm.  And while Karen mentions feeling sad after reading the book, I'll add that I agree with her assessment through the half of the book that we're covering today; but by the time I'd gotten through the current state of affairs at Marvel (the latter part of the book) I had a bit of a sense of depression.

Jack "King" Kirby, 1980's
Karen: The second half really hammers home that comics is a business. Howe's history is  quite complete, and while I found it somewhat interesting to learn about publisher Martin Goodman's past and the events that would lead to the birth of Marvel Comics, what I really wanted to read about were the things that happened from the creation of the Fantastic Four on, and this is the meat of the book. From Howe's descriptions of the situation at Marvel, I got the impression that there were problems between Stan Lee and his artists almost from the very start. I can't help but wonder if much of the frustration the artists seemed to feel stemmed from working in the 'Marvel Method', where the artists supplied much of the plot for an issue. In some cases, particularly with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, the artists frequently came up with nearly all of the story, with Lee chiefly coming in afterwards to write captions and dialog. Of course, the Marvel Method evolved because Lee was the only writer on staff at the beginning. It would have been impossible for the man to provide full scripts for every book they were producing at the time. But it's easy to see how it would have bred ill-feeling. Of course, as Marvel grew popular, Lee also became adept at self-promotion, and this didn't help matters.

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
Doug:  Concerning the "Marvel Method":  If there's one takeaway from this book, it may be the body count of bruised egos left strewn along the pages we've all cherished.  Let me offer this:  even once comics moved into the 1980's and creators with total control became more common, the term used to describe them is "writer/artist".  There seemed to be two really big issues for a lot of the pencilers.  One, that Stan Lee got top billing as the writer and as Karen said increasingly began to take all of the credit (much of which can be attributed to "silence is acceptance"; Stan had ample opportunity in many interviews to set the record straight on all of his co-creations and often chose not to do that).  The second major thorn-in-the-side was the lack of creator control, credits, or royalties for characters created.  I have to play devil's advocate here to some extent, and we can use the Superman legal suits as a case study:  By the time Kirby and Ditko were firing on all cylinders, Superman had been in movie serials, cartoons, radio programs, the George Reeves television series, and countless incarnations as toys, coloring books, etc.  That Kirby and Ditko wouldn't have had any knowledge of a) the empire that Superman had become or b) the fact that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were working stiffs just like them, having sold the Man of Steel and all rights for a song is simply ludicrous.  They knew what work-for-hire was, and regardless of the moral shortcomings of the policy those were the rules they were playing under in those days.  Do I personally think it would have been a better, happier, story if Siegel & Schuster and Simon & Kirby, et al. had received a fair cut of the profits from the intellectual properties they'd created?  Duh -- of course I do!  But I still say that what gets lost in these tales is the fact that we're dealing with grown men who were trying to pay for their families' expenses -- they had somewhat unique talents and were compensated only at a going rate for those talents.  No one likes to be unemployed, and certainly wouldn't have wanted to have been blackballed for standing on principle. So they took what Marvel Comics offered and soldiered on -- knowing full well that everything they created was instantly the copyright and/or trademark of someone other than themselves.

Roy Thomas, early 1970's
Karen: Although Lee gets a lot of flak for his self-aggrandizement, and sometimes deservedly so, I often wonder if Marvel would ever have become as popular as it did without Lee there as the face of the company? I mean, you can't think about Marvel, at least Marvel of the 60s, without thinking of Lee. It's simply not possible. He represents that company and those characters in a way that no one at DC does. And yes,even though the whole idea of one big, happy bullpen was a fiction, that, and Lee's personal style, created a sense of camaraderie that drew fans in. The creators' rights issues are always tough. Certainly, if they were unhappy, they could have gone into another area of work, such as commercial art. As you say, they knew what they were signing. Although no one had a crystal ball -despite the enormous success of Superman, no one could be blamed for not foreseeing the eventual success of the Marvel characters. I do feel that later on though, there was not enough effort made to pay many of these people back for the enormous contributions they made to the company. The whole fiasco over returning Kirby's artwork is just appalling.

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
Karen: Over time it has become more obvious, at least to me, what those two contributed to the comics they worked on. There's no denying the creative genius of the guys. But again, it's all a synthesis. Without Lee's dialog and characterization, indeed, humanizing of the super-heroes, would the books have been successful? So they deserve respect, and more credit than they typically get, certainly. It does bother me when I hear people talk about the Marvel films and ascribe all the characters to Lee, for example.

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
Doug:  It's interesting that you say the 1968-1970 period was a bit of a rut, as that was sort of Marvel's explosion.  Once freed from the terrible distribution deal Marvel had had with DC, where the Marvel books were limited to only a handful a month, the House of Ideas exploded.  The Silver Surfer, Cap, Iron Man, Subby, and the Hulk all went solo that year -- and really, the creative teams were solid.  But I think I understand what you mean.  The best days of the Fantastic Four were dwindling rapidly as '68 gave way to '69, and for my money the Surfer's book would begin to play like a broken record pretty quickly.  The X-Men was about to be cancelled, and Daredevil was middling.  So yeah, perhaps the expansion was only an illusion.  We can certainly draw a line between the twilight of the Silver Age and the coming Bronze Age.

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...


david_b said...

I typed some notes up regarding Howe’s wonderful book, here are some highlights.

Steranko..: I liked how Howe wrote about Steranko’s arrival in 1966, full of energy and swagger, where thanks to Lee was given his choice of books when he started. Interestingly enough, from painting his colorful past (his band sharing bills with Bill Haley..) to his then-enjoyed financial freedom (pg91), gave much insight to his creative freedom, as well as locking down a paycheck other Bullpen artists didn’t have the liberty to pull off. Since he had no family, he had the freedom to broadly experiment with styles, following Kirby’s penchant for collage work, he added stylish doses of Op Art and looked at his panel work as ‘a designer’ more than an artist enslaved to simply telling a story. As phrased later, it was ‘Positively Postmodernism in the Merry Marvel Way’. This played right into Lee’s style perfectly, and as mentioned on pg 90, Lee was more than happy to let Gene Colan to experiment as well with his own dark style at the expense of story-telling with Ironman tales in TOS.

Lee vs. Kirby..: Liked the inside scoop, dizzying in complexity and ‘left turns’, of the occasionally bombastic relationship between Lee and Kirby. As a theme throughout the book, Howe seems to track this as if it was a thread throughout the generations of Bullpen staff changes, even down to a radio show featuring Jack Kirby in the mid-80s where Stan called in laud praise, which soon disintegrated into unmended wounds. Kirby always despised Lee for hogging the limelight, in an almost Jagger/Richards style relationship; it was Lee as Jagger who was the front man, but it was Kirby as Keith who provided the new artists styles to adopt and cultivate the Marvel style, so to speak (Steranko and Smith to name a few..). I read with incredible interest Kirby’s first move to DC in 1970, in interviews Kirby making great effort to detail both the repression he felt and later the embarrassment of having to work on his creations he no longer owned at Marvel. Then it was funny to read that only a few months later that Lee was receiving offers to come over to DC, to the worry of Cadence Industries’ CEO Sheldon Feinberg. What Kirby fails to realize is that Marvel NEEDED a public face, to steer public opinion, to handle the questions, to essentially show the industry… ‘ownership’, even if it was to embrace the kooky, energetic style of Marveldom, much like Jobs for Apple, Gates for Microsoft. You needed a living, breathing embodiment to make this concept work.. Stan was it.

Apparently my initial comments were TOO long, so part 2 in a moment..

Kid said...

A great review - I almost don't need to read the book. About the return of artwork to Jack Kirby, it's interesting that he never seemed interested in its return until an ancillary market had been established and old art was now worth something. Jim Shooter has some interesting observations to make on the situation, and it seems that Kirby himself may have been responsible for some of the difficulties in the eventual return of his art.

There's no disputing that Kirby and Ditko were great storytellers in their own right, but their work was always a bit of a dry read without Lee's input, and it's clear that, however minimal some may argue that input was, it had a disproportionate effect on the finished result, often transforming these collaborations into the classics they are.

On the matter of credit, Lee always seemed very generous in sharing credit (once describing Kirby as much the writer on the stories as he was) in early interviews. I wonder if his later 'failure' to correct people's misperceptions sprang more from politeness and a reluctance to embarrass people by correcting them, than it did from a desire to hog the credit. Kirby was the same - if a kid pronounced 'Darkseid' as 'Darkseed', not only would Kirby not correct him, he would also mispronounce the name so as not to embarrass the kid.

And let's not forget, when Kirby moved to DC, in his full-page accounts of his past achievements in various titles, he seldom (if ever, in fact) mentioned Joe Simon.

I think you were right on the buttom with your 'bruised egos' comment. Each collaborator tends to think that he was the main ingredient in whatever success was achieved, and tends to resent it when public perception is not in accord with their own 'take' on the matter.

I'm sure the debate on who did what will go on and on, but it was undeniably Stan Lee who gave Marvel its magic back in the '60s.

Garett said...

Nice to see this review and you two back! I enjoyed the first half of this book. Not being a Marvel zuvembie, I didn't know many of these stories. Fun pic of Marv Wolfman! It was fun to read about young guys like Jim Starlin doing their thing, and I had no idea about the editorial chaos behind the scenes.

david_b said...

Part 2....

Mythology: I like the mention of Marvel’s creations reflecting a growing interest in ‘the collision of ancient civilizations and futuristic technologies’ (ie, T’Challa, Thor, the Kree to name a few..). Howe wonderfully wrote about this phase.., ‘Every time a Marvel hero turned over a stone, it seemed a new, energy-crackling mythology awaited’.

Heck: Also outlined was the apparent decline of Don Heck, even asking Kirby for drawing advice, as did Syd Shores.

Ah, the drug years..: The era of Thomas’s hands-off, see-what-sticks approach, ushering in Marvel’s most unpredictable and often downright subversive era. It’s always comical to read of Stan’s indignation over hot buttons such as Gwen’s death, ‘Whaaat..??, I didn’t know that..???’.. Oh, please Stan.

Gerber’s full-frontal satire..: Interesting was Gerber’s inspiration on Man-Thing… “”Korrek, a barbarian who emerged from a jar of peanut butter”..?

Distinctions between the writing staff..: Here's where Howe really came through.., effectively painting and summarizing individual styles and how they weaved the weird tapestry we called Marvel's Bronze Age.. Where McGregor’s writing was passionately serious, Gerber was a born satirist, almost helplessly lampooning every segment of the population, who else could have created the original ‘Viper’ as a bad guy who worked in advertising.

More emphasis than I was initially comfortable with when I read his book at Barnes, various tales were told as to the now-obvious drug usage. I liked Howe's mention of Starlin making Mar-Vell ‘cosmically aware’..?, practically ‘a black-light poster with dialog’ gifted with joints from turned-on readers.. He, Milgrom and Weiss (and occasionally Englehart) dropping acid around the NY area, and in discussing concepts of God, wrote their different visions of such in MarVell, Doctor Strange, and Shang-Chi. Soon Englehart would welcome letters including bags of ‘Wowie Maui’. Hmm, sounds like that’s where the telepathic trees came from in Avengers Celestial Madonna storyline.

Starlin, Oh, how the FF would have evolved..: Most startling was Romita (now as art director) offering Starlin FF, who supposedly didn’t want ‘to be tied down’. I still marvel at what ‘could have been’, how Thanos and other cosmic entities would have woven more deeply into FF rather than the Avengers during those Bronze years.

Ah, let's get more comments rolling folks..!!

Doug said...

Thanks for the welcome back, Garett!

I remarked to Karen last night, in anticipation of "The Return", that I'm going to be pretty darned disappointed if every post we run doesn't get at least 30 comments! You all were quite chatty over the past four weeks! Here's to hoping we meet your expectations.

One thought in regard to the Howe book and to Marvel -- we are so heavily invested in these creators and their creations that I literally felt uplifted and almost sick to my stomach while reading the various anecdotes Howe tells. Yet, the man on the street might be hard pressed to name even Stan Lee as the "creator" of the characters seen in all the Marvel movies these days. The other men and women we hold so high? They're not even on the radar of the public consciousness. But in the BAB community, this book is a really big deal, isn't it?


Edo Bosnar said...

Yeah, welcome back from me, too. And great review, guys. Haven't read the book, so I can't comment too much on that, but I did enjoy your summary of the whole Lee/Kirby controversy and the issue of work-for-hire, etc. It's so refreshing to see these matters discussed soberly, without all of the hot-headed rhetoric and name-calling that appears on so many comics-related blogs and message boards whenever the topic comes up.

Garett, I like that photo of Marv as well. It looks like he's trying to live up to his surname.
david_b: isn't it Maui Wowie? That's what all the heads in my HS called it anyway...

And not to derail this conversation, but every time I see that adage sausages being made mentioned (as Karen did, and which I've seen in a number of reviews of this book specifically), I recall being puzzled when I first heard it, probably as a teenager. See, my dad, the scion of a long line of hardy European peasants, used to make sausages. So when I was a kid, I observed and actively participated in the entire process, from the live hog to hanging the sausages in the smokehouse. Never saw anything particularly objectionable about it...

david_b said...

Edo, I lifted some unquoted references directly from Howe's book (I sat with my Nook reading/typing last night..), so that's how Howe referred to it as...

All, here's a nice supplemental interview with Howe in case anyone's interested...:

William said...

Welcome back guys! Hope you're both well rested and are having a good new year so far.

I read this book a few months back, so I don't remember all the details, but I do remember the general impressions I came away with. I mostly felt like you in the regard that there are some things better left a mystery. This book was akin to pulling back the curtain and revealing the all powerful Wizard to be just a man. There were a lot of times in the 70's that Marvel seemed so dysfunctional, that I was amazed that they ever got any books to the stands at all.

Another thing that stuck with me was the massive egos of the collective staff and freelancers back then. It seemed that most creators started working at Marvel with the immediate impression that they were God's gift to comic books. Young men that were very lucky, to not only be working in comics, but to be working as writers and artists at all. They would make crazy demands as if they had unlimited options, or as if they were rock stars. And even more shocking, most of the time it seems they got their way. Then when they would suddenly (and sometimes incorrectly) perceive that they weren't being afforded the proper respect they felt they deserved, they would abruptly quit and go work at DC. That is until someone at DC insulted their "genius" as well, and they would return to Marvel as arrogant as ever. What was most perplexing was that they kept getting away with it time and time again. Bouncing back and forth from Marvel to DC multiple times throughout their careers. Amazing.

But the most confusing thing to me is what went on with Stan Lee. Here is a man who was firmly in control of the most successful comic book company in the world. He was (perceived at least) as the guiding light and creative genius behind the worlds most popular characters, and on top of that, he was related to the man who actually owned it all. And somehow, after everything was said and done, he ended up as pretty much just an employee of the company that he help build. It is shocking to me that he basically walked away from the comic book end of the business, migrated to California, and then just sort of faded into the background for the most part. I think that with his clout and popularity that he could have easily ended up as the CEO, or even owner of Marvel Comics, but he just didn't seem interested. I guess he just didn't want to have to work that hard and have to deal with all the BS that comes with being in charge. In hindsight, it was probably a smart decision on his part, and the main reason why he's lived to be 90 plus years old. lol. He's still done alright for himself though, that's for sure.

I'm looking forward to the second half of the this review, because it was the later years of Marvel that were really depressing to me. When the suits came in and took over, and pretty much strip mined the company of all of it's creative gold. But we'll talk about all that more in the next review.

Anonymous said...

Been avoiding this book for reasons which can best be summarised as ‘pay no attention to that man behind the curtain’. I enjoyed the Daniels book, but you really can’t put the genie back in the bottle after you’ve read it.

Ref. DD I thought it was very original. The way Stan wrote it had the problem of reportage, with DD constantly explaining to you how his senses of perception worked (‘I will throw my billy club at that escaping felon. I can tell from his footfalls that there is no one between him and me’) but I got the feeling that some thought had gone into it.

Ref. the work-for-hire debate; it goes on everywhere, right? None of us own our work. I know it’s different, but I work for a multi-billion dollar corporation which uses interns and pays them virtually nothing. Between all the different interns we’ve had as an organisation, we must have exploited hundreds of years of work out of them collectively.

I know Stan has a lot to answer for, but I think it’s really sad that he gets beaten up for the whole bullpen, merry Marvel, nutty nicknames, false sense of camaraderie thing. It sucked us all in and made us all feel part of something, and set a tone for everything from Marvel, which we clearly all loved. What makes me sad is that we all criticise Stan for taking credit for all the fiction for which he was NOT the sole originator, but the one fiction, the biggest fiction, the most absorbing, involving, fascination fiction - Marvel comics itself – we do all acknowledge was absolutely his creation and we still criticise him for it.

Ref. Lee / Kirby – well, it’s tough, isn’t it? We all know Jack was treated unfairly, but there are two things: (1) there are numerous instances where Stan is surprisingly honest about his own lack of input e.g. it always amazed me that, although the Surfer was his favourite character and he refused to let anyone else touch him for nearly 20 years, he was absolutely straight that Kirby was 100% the originator. (2) I think a lot more credit-hogging took place from Ditko than from Kirby. I think Ditko more or less invented Spider Man as he stood (Lee the back story, but Ditko the character) and Doc strange was entirely Ditko’s baby. We’ve spoken often of how bad some of Kirby’s writing was in the 70’s, yet we’re happy to downplay Stan’s role in favour of Jack’s in the silver age. Imagine the Jack Kirby of Cap / The Black Panther / Devil Dinosaur / The Eternals let loose in the Silver Age.

Starlin doing the FF. LOL. That would have been a long trip (!) to the Negative Zone, I suspect.

Reading David’s summary of the drug usage followed by Edo’s sombre reflections on the nature of sausages is a magical pairing. I can just see Englehart and Starlin sitting in Central Park ......


Anonymous said...

Looks like the Wizard of Oz metaphor has had its day. Two of us in the SAME MINUTE?


Karen said...

The invention of the Marvel Bullpen was sheer genius. It pulled us all in, made us feel a part of something. That sense of inclusion certainly inspired loyalty in Marvel fans. Knowing now that it was all an illusion does take the luster off. It's a bit like knowing that Santa Claus isn't real. Does it make me regret anything though? No. But I do look back on all those "Bullpen Bulletins" and FOOMs with a jaded eye.

David, thanks for the link to that interview. I read two pages; I hope to look at the rest on my lunch break.

david_b said...

Sidenote: Not to gush, but my respect for Lee is unwaivered, probably more so in light of faults noted here and elsewhere. He's not some 'mystical comic book legend' we read about; he's a smart businessman, who's continual dream of making his (shared) creations rise higher than ever, cultivating a near cinematic style, with credit to hiring the likes of Kirby, Steranko, Buscema, and Colan.

Ego..? You bet.

I still say that both him and Goodman made many risky decisions that, back in the early 60s before anyone ever heard of Thanos, a Silver Surfer, you name it, could have backfired, but luckily carved out a huge blossoming niche in industry readership. He's carried the public face of Marvel through it's successes and lean years. Many crucial decisions of which we (and Kirby) will never know, thanks to apparent success.

He's been knocked for contradicting himself by everyone in the industry, but if you gave hundreds of interviews each year for decades plus talks to huge masses, anyone's bound to make goofs.

Arguably, there is no one individual who is regarded as the face of influence in what we read today more than Lee, who to this day still carries a nice mix of swagger, aplomb, and that twinkle in his eye.

Inkstained Wretch said...

I'll just say that I learned a long time ago that if you truly love an artist's work, it's probably best not to learn too much about the artist himself.

And yet sometimes it helps to appreciate art by having no illusions about the artist. For years I have heard and read stories about what jerks Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of Kiss were, how shameless and greedy the band was regarding promotion and merchandising, and related tales. That, plus the band's general silliness put me off of them for a long time.

Then I bought a discounted Kiss album at a used record store and thought, "Hey, say what you will about the people who made it, but this music rocks."

BTW -- Great insight, Richard, about the Bullpen being Stan Lee's greatest creation and the one he totally owns.

ditkomania said...

The book turned me into a Carl Porrs fan and made me hunt down a copy of THE 5 C'S OF CINEMATOGRAPHY

ditkomania said...

Carl Potts THAT is!

Doc Savage said...

nearly all those writers came across to me as petulant brats with apparently no real work experience or they would know the employee doesn't call the shots no matter how talented he may be or thinks he is kinda sad to know what jerks wrote some of the stuff I cherish

Anonymous said...

Not much for me to say that hasn't already been said here. I agree Stan Lee has had some less than stellar moments, but he's a hard guy to dislike. He did give Kirby and Ditko plotting credit and was pretty honest about their contributions. At least Stan wasn't like Bob Kane, who managed to put his name on everything Batman-related while the people who actually did the work (Finger, Robinson, Sprang, etc.) got no credit at all.

Mike W.

david_b said...

Mike W, very insightful comparison with Kane to Lee.

You can't beat that argument. I guess it comes down to motives here.., which for me makes Lee look even better in hindsight.

1) Sure he took credit for most things himself, but he also established early on the 'branding of Marvel', such as the much-lauded Bullpen antics, providing a great marketing scheme of a office full of folks as hard-working, zany yet creative as he. Was this to sell comics..? You betcha, it's a business.

2) As I alluded to earlier, folks for decades have been trying to hone in/disect details from interviews, podium talks, as to their relationship and 'who-created-what'.

- 'WHO..REALLY..CARES?' at some point; and
- The truth is probably far less distinctive in terms of putting a person with a phrase or costume change, etc.. You can bet it's far more seamless than most of us imagine, anyone in the business'll surely tell you that, especially back in the day when you didn't have PC's with date/time stamps, who owned what files, etc..

We can't look at the times 'back then' with what we know or the thinking we have now. It just didn't exist back then.

No one knew what would stick so who took the time to analyze concepts before they hit the newstands..?

Garett said...

Hey David thanks for the Howe interview link--good bonus reading.

david_b said...

Well I finally got to the end of the interview I linked a few posts ago (above..), and it's pretty insightful.

Sean offers a cute final analogy as to what Marvel ultimately has become these days....:

“Marvel Entertainment is like this really nice expensive big restaurant, and Marvel Comics is the cigarette machine in the lobby that every once in awhile the owners shake for change to see what comes out.”

Kid said...

It occurs to me that the Bullpen wasn't so much a Stan Lee 'invention' as a 're-invention'. I think Stan was harking back to the days of people like Will Eisner and his studio system, when artists, letterers, colourists, etc., all worked in the same room on occasion. So bullpens did at one time exist, it's just that they were probably things of the past by the time Stan immortalized them in the pages of Marvel comics. Also, when Stan started at Timely, it seems by all accounts that he worked in a bullpen-type set-up. So, not quite an 'invention', more an indulgence in nostalgia, perhaps.

david_b said...

Kid, I believe you're spot on..!!

I tend to picture those old movie reels of newsrooms where someone actually yells 'STOP THE PRESSES'. Stan wanted the aura of a unified Marvel Marching society, as Sean reflected in the interview, a 'larger-than-life' communal image conveyed.

("Geez, they even issued an exclusive fan club 45 with employee's actual voices and a theme song to further indoctrinate the masses.., for heaven's sake.")

As I said a few days ago, a sense of telling the readers, 'We're all here creating tales of having great fun and adventure, where have YOU been..??

It worked.

William Preston said...

I'm on p. 321; the book is quite involving. My thoughts:

Am I wrong, or are there errors in this? Titles, sequence of (comic) events, character info? I've seen several things that weren't right, which made me question the writer, though the quotes from people are quotes, so I guess those are reliable.

The chronology is jumpy and recursive in the '60s-'70s; I had a hard time knowing when an event was happening. This didn't happen in the '80s so much, but they seemed to jump ahead a lot and be more focused, so far, on artists.

I didn't know Shooter was so awful. And since I pretty much stopped reading comics in the early '80s, I wasn't exposed to his writing.

The book has simultaneously had the effect of making me not want to read even old Marvels again and wanting to buy a few hardback collections of a few wonderful things. But now, at least, I feel I'm not missing much. That's actually helpful.

The writer does apply judgment to certain writers and artists, but some avoid criticism or even mention. Wolfman, I feel, deserves more comment. His writing was almost uniformly bad, the one exception being on Dracula, which was stunningly good. There are many other examples. I guess that's not the book Howe wanted to write, and it might have gotten bogged down in details that would have bloated the book beyond belief.

Garett said...

Hey William, I'd like to see another book, with more stories from the creative people involved, and less about the big company issues. Writers, artists telling anecdotes about their bronze age creations/collaborations.

William Preston said...

Agreed, Garett. That's what I thought this would be. Those company policies certainly affect things, but in this book, they're foregrounded.

humanbelly said...

Man, SO MUCH to touch on here, and it's been a busy-to-the-gills day (I'm at a HBGirl dance competition even as I write this. Two hour lag til the next dance, though).

Doug, Karen-- I'd also offer a hearty "Welcome Back", except heck, it's not really like you've been absent, right? As well as still having your voices echo from posts past, you've been delightfully active commentors with the rest of us regular joes-! It's really been great having you step down from the management pedestal and mingling with the masses for a while, if I may be so bold.

My experience upon reading the book was very similar to many others' here-- down-heartening, a bit depressing, deflating-- taking a chunk of the enjoyment out of something I've enjoyed my whole life. BUT-- upon reflection, it occurred to me that the reason for this may have largely been the focus of Howe's narrative. A behind-the-scenes book like this is, of course, primarily concerned with the grittier, unpleasant, unseemly aspects of the business end of this creative enterprise. A similar book about Disney or Microsoft or Apple or Pixar or the Star Trek franchise or even Sesame Street would almost certainly have the same effect. Howe really focuses largely on the foibles of the production process (Early gritty over-achieving, desparate ploys to stay afloat, creative head-butting, editorial power plays, power struggles in general, colossal clashing egoes, generational conflicts and rivalries, etc, etc), but doesn't expand as deeply at all into the nature of the truly CREATIVE process. We miss out on the creative joy, dedication, artistic integrity, and love of the subject matter that was clearly experienced by most of the writers, artists and even most editors. It's indirectly suggested by the amount of posessiveness and territoriality on display. . . and the fact that every writer and artist wanted to create his own legacy on any title he took on. And to some degree, it's understandable why Howe doesn't put his lens on that aspect-- it doesn't make interesting reading, for one thing. "Yeah, we put out a dozen issues of Fantastic Four on time and under budget, and the fans bought it like hotcakes. Best work I ever did."--- something like that? It's nice to know, but. . . ho-hum.

So, with that in mind, it's also important to always remember that any work of art is bigger and/or greater than the artist who created it. If it touches YOU. . . that's the true measure of its worth. Especially when the art is the product of a chaotic gestalt, like comics. Heck, any single issue is greater than the talents of any single individual that worked on it- much like theater, actually.

Whoops, looks like there's a dance I have to go watch after all-- hopefully I can get back-!


Anonymous said...

I'm with Inkstained Wrench on this one - sure, the fabricated image we had as kids of a harmonious happy Merry Marvel bullpen was just an illusion. However, Marvel at the time was not the world famous comics juggernaut that we know today. Back in the 60s, they were a relatively small company trying new things and new characters to capture a public's imagination. Marvel was into fields as diverse as romance and monster stories long before anyone had ever heard of Spider-Man.

As for Stan Lee, I agree with Kid and David_b - Marvel simply HAD to have a public face to identify them. In much the same way as KFC had Colonel Sanders or Apple had Steve Jobs, Marvel had Stan Lee. Corporate advertising departments in large businesses spend millions of dollars nowadays to do just that - find an image or person who personifies that company. I believe it's called corporate branding.

I think that's the reason why Stan promoted himself as much as he did. I think the degree of input that he had in the creation of Marvel's characters was of secondary importance to promoting himself and by extension Marvel, at least in Stan's mind. Yes, Stan was indeed a shrewd businessman. I'm reminded of what a producer of the original Star Trek TV series once said in an interview : "we didn't set out to create a legendary space drama which exemplified the bright future of humanity- we were just trying to make a buck!"

- Mike 'wishes his workplace was like the Bullpen' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Fred W. Hill said...

Eventually I'll have to get this book, although right now I have so many other books to finish or start! Anyhow, in my freshman year at high school, given an assignment to write about who I most admired, I picked Stan Lee because I so bought into his persona and although he had stopped writing comics years before, there were still all those reprints I was latching onto as much as the new stuff. As a more knowledgable adult, I no longer admire Stan so much, although still recognizing the significance of his contributions to Marvel's Silver Age. Funny that Stan became famous for writing superheroes with feet of clay and it turns out he had enormous feet of clay himself. Still, none of that takes away from the enjoyment I feel when reading many of my favorite Marvel comics from both the Silver & Bronze ages. Also, personally, I much preferred the writing of the "anti-establishment" Bronze Age writers, even back when I had no idea what that term meant. I just liked the wild & crazy elements of the writings of the likes of Gerber & Englehart and that their stories weren't just inane fight fests & often had an interesting point of view.

Edo Bosnar said...

Like Fred, I find that knowing so much of this behind-the-scenes stuff - and having all of my childhood misconceptions about the bullpen shattered - has not diminished my enjoyment of the comics themselves.

In that regard, something david_b said a few comments up, i.e., "who really cares?" really resonates. I was only tangentially aware of a lot of this stuff back when I was a comics-reading kid and into my teens, but thanks to the internet you can find so much (too much?) information on the entire comics scene, from the old articles and interviews in the fanzines of the day to more recent commentary by industry insiders and fans - and I have to say, at times I'm shocked at how vehement the online forum and blog debates and arguments can get (esp. those concerning Lee/Kirby, credit over who created what at Marvel and who got ripped off, and anything pertaining to Jim Shooter). It's amazing to me that people without a personal stake in any of these matters get so worked up over it.
That's why it so nice to come here to see this book and the topics it covers discussed so, well, sanely...

Comicsfan said...

... sometimes it's best not to know what's going on behind the scenes... I walk away from this perhaps a little sadder than before.

In a nutshell, that sums up my reason for not yet picking up this book, even though I find the subject matter fascinating. At some point I'm sure it's going to lure me in. I suppose when you get down to it, a comics company's bread and butter is arguably promotion, promotion, promotion, the details of which can be as illusory as the many worlds created in the pages we read through. And Karen makes a good point about the popularity of Marvel existing in direct proportion to Lee's efforts toward that end. But the devil (for want of a better word) is surely in the details here. When I began blogging, one of the labels I added to the site was "business is business," a self-explanatory category which I honestly felt a little weird about including because I thought it might detract from the general tone I was trying to establish. Perhaps that's a metaphor for my own trepidation about reading what I'm sure is an otherwise excellent book.

humanbelly said...

Hey, good job Comicsfan, getting us up to Doug's fervently hoped-for 30 comment threshold. It woulda been heartbreaking to let our benefactor down so soon, eh? :)

I wouldn't say this is an excellent book, but it's certainly a pretty good one, and a VERY engaging read. The most glaring omission, to my mind, is the lack of a photo section, which is practically obligatory for a book like this- particularly with such a large cast of notable and notorious characters. Photos of the main players, of pertinent locales and places, even of events-- all of these should be readily available in the public domain. Not sure if this falls on the shoulders of the author, publisher, or editor-- but a definite mark down.

Also, while the account is reasonably chronological, Howe is weak when it comes to being specific about dates or even years at times. Where and when events and trends coincide gets a little squishy.

And, as I said above, the focus on the publishing end does do a disservice to the creative process-- makes it seem a very secondary consideration, which it simply couldn't have been, at least to the guys doing the creating.

If folks want to keep chattin' on this thread, I know I'll be happy to keep comin' back to it-!

(Gotta go-- more dance stuff!)


Doug said...

I agree with the idea about a photo section -- I was surprised when I received the book at Christmas that there was virtually no art whatsoever. In fact, the photo of Stan and Jack together was it, right? As the book was not necessarily about what Marvel published but about Marvel itself, I suppose the omission of covers and original art is understandable. But all of the images we displayed in this post, as well as what you'll see on Tuesday's follow-up were snatched from the World Wide Web (and I understand that there may be property rights violations inherent in that strategy -- we were asked to remove a photo of John Buscema a few weeks ago and readily obliged). So, yeah, pictures should have been available for use in the book.

I know we pump TwoMorrows' Back Issue! magazine -- for those of you thirsting for the recollections of Bronze Age creators and editors, that magazine is (in our opinion -- I'll go out on a limb and speak for my partner) the #1 source for Bronze Age material on the stands today. I've long had a project to sit down with my collection (I have every issue so far) and index it... yeah, some day.


Karen said...

Doug, I actually thought about suggesting that anyone craving some solid material with artist and writer interviews go seek out Back Issue or other Twomorrows publications, but since I have written for them on occasion, I didn't want to sound self-serving. But I really do think that's the best source around for information on 70s and 80s comics.

I do wish Howe had been more explicit in naming dates in the book. I sometimes felt confused about when things were taking place.

I think however that he hit the tone he wanted to, that comics are and always have been, a business. We see only the creative end of things, and he obviously wanted to focus more on the industry, the process of making the product, and the people behind it. I thought the interview David posted was great and enlightening, particularly when Howe was lamenting the fact that comics as a medium are being lost. Marvel sees their characters as being more valuable then the stories. They can market the characters in many mediums. But comics, as a medium, can do things other mediums can't. I've felt for years that the comics themselves have been unduly influenced by films and TV and have striven to imitate them far too much. Now they are just a way to keep the IP alive for the next film or game or whatever.

William Preston said...

I do heartily recommend the Howe-edited Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!: Writers on Comics. That's an excellent collection.

At this point in my reading, this new book now feels--as does its reader--dutiful in reaching its conclusion, most of the joy gone from its pages.

And, yeah, the absence of photos is a huge gap.

Dandy Forsdyke said...

I bought this book a week or so ago and I would recommend it to everyone. It's unputdownable.

Welcome back from me. I loved reading your greatest hits in your absence.

Doug said...


Thanks very much from me as well for giving us the link to the Sean Howe interview. I converted it to a Word document, and it will be folded and tucked inside my copy of Howe's book. It was a nice little read.


Comicsfan said...

BTW, anyone who wants to enjoy Sean Howe's interview with the Phoenix but avoid its segmented page-by-page format can use this link to either read or print it in its entirety. (Thanks again to david_b for the initial link itself.)

Comicsfan said...

...which, for some reason, won't allow the direct link. Just click on the little printer icon at the site. :)

WardHill Terry said...

Another book that may interest you all is Gerard Jones' "Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comics Book."
It details the early days of the industry. I've not yet read the Howe book, but reading Doug and Karen's summary, and the responses, got me to thinking of the Jones book. It was always an industry. Talent was often treated like crap. (The story of Jerry Siegel is heart-breaking.) I think it's amazing that so many enjoyable stories got published in the first place!

Sean Howe said...

I've enjoyed following this conversation; thanks for the many kind words.

The book was supposed to include images from the comics, but at the last minute Marvel provided a contract that stipulated that nothing in the book could be construed as critical of the company. By that time it was too late to track down rights holders for photos of the creators. (It's a lot easier to post such photos on a Tumblr or FB or Blogspot page than to actually clear permissions, especially when many of the photographs are of unknown origin. Off the top of my head, I can tell you that the Roy Thomas photo on this page is ©Raeanne Rubenstein, and the Steve Englehart photo is ©Alan Light. Marvel Comics would own the Conway and Wolfman images, since they were photographed for publication in their magazines.)

That said, you can see about a zillion images on my Facebook and Tumblr pages, which you can access via, where there are also links to book excerpts and (if you can endure them) more interviews.

Lastly, if anyone finds factual errors in the book (thanks for catching the Maui Wowie slip!) please contact me via the book's Facebook page. They'll be corrected for the paperback.

Sean Howe

Karen said...

Sean, welcome to the blog and thanks for saying hello. As you can see, there's tremendous interest in your book here!I know that I will be returning to it again and again when trying to recall some tidbit of Marvel history. The lack of photos was perplexing but thanks for pointing us to your web pages. There certainly are a lot of pics there.


vancouver mark said...

I just got the book from the library a few days ago and read this weekend. I agree with a lot of comments that it paints a sad picture of a company and industry that went downhill in a big way.
I'm grateful that I came to the Marvel universe in late 72/early 73, just in time for the wild years of Englehart, Gerber, Starlin, et al. I enjoyed the anecdotes that that era, and would have enjoyed more of that instead of the corporate crap of the 80s and 90s.

Doug said...

Sean --

Thanks from me as well for stopping by. We hope you'll find your way back tomorrow (Tuesday, 2/5) and maybe add a nugget or two to our discussion of the second half of the book.

I can attest to the hassles that can arise when dealing with copyright law. For years, many of the educators associated with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum have wanted to get our hands on a short video of the history of antisemitism (it plays in the basement level, for those of you who have been to the USHMM). We've been told for at least the seven years that I've been chasing it that the Museum is authorized to use the content on site, but for us to be able to use it in our classrooms or workshops is a "no go". Lo and behold, we were advised just a couple of weeks ago that one of their staffers finally sealed the deal -- and we were told it was a Herculean effort -- and the film can now be packaged as a DVD. All of this legal wrangling over images that are decades, if not in some cases hundreds of years, old.


Edo Bosnar said...

Sean, thanks for the links. And as for Maui Wowie - I knew it!

Matthew Bradley said...

It was entirely to be expected that a review of Howe's excellent book would generate a wonderful discussion. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading both the review and the comments, but won't waste anybody's time by enumerating my personal points of agreement and disagreement. So far I have read various chunks of the book, yet not the whole thing cover to cover, and presume I will also be depressed by life under Shooter.

As it happens, I got the book just when I was putting the finishing touches on an article for Marvel University about the phenomenon of the revolving-door EIC position in between Lee and Shooter. I'd made some use of the Daniels book, but I quickly perused the pertinent section in Howe to make sure I had my facts straight. If anybody's interested, the article is here:

humanbelly said...

Man, it had crossed my mind that the No Pictures problem could have been caused by disgruntled corporate interests, but I naively thought, "surely, not in this day and age-!" Heck, that's yet another disappointing footnote that I wouldn't hesitate to add to future editions of this book. "Sorry about no photos. . . but here's why. . . "

Hmm. By any chance, did this edict come down after Disney had purchased Marvel. It really sounds like the quintessential heavy-handed Disney type of brand-control maneuver-- but not unthinkable for modern Marvel either.

Sean, really- multiple, MULTIPLE thumbs-up and pats on the back for popping up on Doug & Karen's blog, here, to touch base with us. Boy, I'm relieved that the bits of critique offered have been thoughtful and respectfully delivered, rather than of the "Dude, you suck worse than Quicksilver's odor-eaters!" variety. Make no mistake, we are the folks you were writing this book for, and we deeply appreciate it. It was just a little hard on us, is all. Probably the simplest and highest praise I can give you is that, long past a reasonable bedtime, it continued to be a perpetual "one more page, and I'm done. . . okay, one MORE page, and THEN I'm done. . .okay, one more-" (etc.) struggle. I suspect that's a Mission Accomplished for most authors, eh?

Quick side question: Even though the Bullpen, per se, was mythical, there still was of course a central office with a staff (albeit a small one), yes? Just w/out a population of artists and writers? Was there any sense of that particular office environment, as it grew, having a resemblance to what Stan was putting forth? For some reason, that notion has stuck in my head. . .


humanbelly said...

Say Doug, re: the USHMM DVD wrangle-- were you educators (or at least you) ever enlightened as to what exactly they were so worried about with letting it be used for educational/outreach purposes? I can't fathom why they'd be so reticent when getting the message out to the larger world would certainly have to be at least part of the mission statement, wouldn't it? Complete OT Tangent, I know-- but I'm very curious.


Doug said...

HB --

I think, not knowing all the ins and outs of property rights, that there are copyright issues for some of the images included in the video. I'm not exactly sure why it's been shown on-site all these years but cannot travel outside the walls of the Museum. But they harp on us all the time that whenever we prepare presentations for Museum programming, the only images we are allowed to use are from the Museum's photo archives and that explicitly say the copyright is owned by the Museum or the image is public domain. No Google image searches are permissible.

I receive free educational materials from John Stossel for use in my economics classes. When he was with ABC News, he did a series of one hour specials on television on topics like Greed, Freeloaders, etc. When those programs were packaged for educational use, there were some scenes and images that ABC apparently could not or did not want to pursue the copyright fees. There will be a few seconds here and there in the DVDs when the audio continues but the screen goes black. There's a disclaimer that shows that reads something about content removed for yadda yadda yadda.

Like Karen and I (and other bloggers) say, if THE MAN wants us to take something down, just ask. We don't need any FBI agents showing up on our doorsteps! Yikes!


vancouver mark said...

One concept briefly touched on in the book that still intrigues me is that Jim Starlin was offered the Fantastic Four and turned it down. That would have been really interesting.

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