Thursday, December 18, 2014

BAB Book Review: Marvelous Mythology

Doug: Today you'll be able to find some thoughts on the very-soon-to-be-released history of Marvel Comics, Marvelous Mythology: How the World's Greatest Super-Heroes Were Created by Todd Frye. If you recall, in a post a couple of weeks ago I mentioned that Todd had reached out to the BAB through our email account. He requested that we review his book and then hopefully give it a plug on our blog. To be honest, Karen and I have been solicited for such things in the past, but I'll say personally that I don't think I've been offered a book that was in my wheelhouse such as today's tome is.

Doug: Those of you who have been patronizing our blog for many years know that I usually frame my reviews in a "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" manner. Trouble is, Todd's book didn't really fit into that mold. But unless you think I'm on the take today, or that Todd's written the be-all-and-end-all of Marvel history, I'll state truthfully that I did have some concerns about the book and even a correction. Those were dealt with through email, and quite cordially. So today we're going to try something new, and that's to welcome an author onto the blog for a sit-down about the contents and creative process of his book. The interview you're about to read was carried out December 15-16, and was approved for publication here by myself and Todd Frye. Enjoy! And of course, as all good BABers do, leave a question or comment at the bottom!

Doug: Todd, you've written the about-to-be-released book, Marvelous Mythology: How the World's Greatest Super-Heroes Were Created (Action Figure Publishing 2015). I guess the first question would be "Why did you write this book?" 

Todd: Money. …..Oh, you want a more meaningful answer. Um… well, the truth is, I wanted to see if I could do my own take on a sort of informal history of how the Marvel characters were created. Not simply how they were created, as in how the artists and writers thought them up, so much as how they fit into the context of the time, what superhero comics were like in the early 60’s, how all of the new characters being introduced fit into the new Marvel universe, that sort of thing.

The book is chronologically ordered, so as each character is introduced, hopefully readers will get a picture of how the Marvel universe looked at each point in time. I think it’s relevant to see how it all fits together in the early stages, like puzzle pieces.

Doug: Give us a bit of background on your comics reading/collecting past -- when did you get into comics, and do you consider it now (or then) a hobby? Are you into the newer stuff, or stuck in the past like many 40- and 50-somethings? 

Todd: Well, I was born in 1966, so I grew up in the 70’s basically. 1974 was the year I really started collecting comics as a kid. And what a year it was… that was when Marvel and DC were both doing their experiments with different sizes and shapes of books, like Marvel’s Giant Sizes and Treasury Editions, DC’s 100-Page Giants, and so forth. But you also had great reprint comics like Marvel Tales, Marvel’s Greatest Comics, Marvel Triple Action… so in addition to the regular, new comics that were coming out, thanks to the reprint titles I got to read a lot of the ‘classic’ stories too.

I don’t really collect any more, even though I have a few collected editions and bound copies here and there. My comics reading is mainly stuck back in the 60’s and 70’s. Not completely, though: I think Alan Moore is a genius, and I pick up just about anything he does. Also the Hernandez Brothers, who I got to meet at a con several years ago. But for the most part newer books just don’t interest me. Maybe it’s the art styles… I know I don’t respond to it the way modern kids do. Anyway, I know there’s probably a ton of brilliant comics being published, but I just don’t have the energy to wade through all of it to find the good stuff.

Doug: At the end of your book, you list several other books as resources for your research, such as Mark Alexander's Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years and Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. What separates Marvelous Mythology from those other books? Why should a reader come to you first? 

Todd: Good question. Well, in many ways each of those books had a different focus, even though the subject matter certainly overlapped. My main concentration was on the origins of the Marvel universe, going forward slowly from the beginning as each new character was introduced, and as each new important story or issue or concept was released to newsstands. It was never really meant as a history of Marvel Comics as a publisher, so much as telling the story of the beginning of that fictional universe. I also meant it as a book that could be enjoyed by people who don’t necessarily read the comics – after all, the movies are bringing in a LOT of new fans, and I wanted to make the story accessible to them without bogging them down in the minutiae of historical record.

Why might readers come to my book first? I would say that – to me, anyway – my book concentrates on ‘the good stuff,’ the character introductions and important moments in early Marvel history, rather than having that be just a part of a larger narrative that might be forced to cover less interesting topics also.

Doug: As I read, I noticed that there are no creator interviews. Was this intentional from the beginning of the project, or did you get stymied early on in trying to reach Silver and Bronze Age creators and shift your direction? 

Todd: No, I didn’t really try to interview anyone… that kind of ‘journalistic’ writing style just doesn’t interest me. I thought about reaching out to a few people, but I knew that each link in that chain would make writing the book take just that much longer. Besides, good interviews with all of these people, or at least most of them, already exist by the dozens. Also, whenever possible, I tried to let the printed comic stories speak for themselves. After all, if you’re going to try and survey the fictional Marvel universe, it might be best to go back to the original source material, just as if you were a kid buying the comics off the newsstand back in the day.

I guess I could have written a different type of book. Well, sure I could. But I’m contrary, I have to do things my own way.

Doug: Readers might be interested in knowing that there are no images or graphics in the book. Since the Internet gives us almost instant access to any picture, cover, etc. I did not at all feel like it detracted from your writing. But it would interest me to know if you did pursue any rights permissions, and if so what you encountered? 

Todd: I didn't pursue that sort of thing. Like with trying to contact possible interview subjects, I just figured that it would be endless waiting and red tape to try to license any images, and possibly more money than I was willing to spend, too. Just as the manuscript was being finished up, though, I did discover a couple of images of Jack Kirby that are in the public domain. But they wouldn't really have added anything substantial to the book. Like you said, readers have a vast array of online tools they can use to seek out images.

In a perfect world, I would have had color illustrations, full panels and covers and original art. But just thinking about negotiating with Disney's lawyers for all of that stuff makes my head spin.

Doug: Ha! Fair enough. As you originally envisioned the project, did you finish what you set out to do? For example, one of the things I thought of as I read was an analysis of those areas you feel the Marvel Universe is better or (insert whatever other adjective you want) so on from other companies' pantheons -- most notably DC's. Was there any interest in doing a comparison/contrast with other characters? 

Todd: Okay, those are two separate questions. Um, the first one… I guess I didn’t really have as clear a vision in mind when I started as I thought I did, because I was actually about two and a half chapters into an earlier version when I realized that it wasn’t quite working. I was using too much detail, and listing each title that the company was publishing in chronological order… which got to be silly, because they had a lot of two-issue funny animal series, things like that, which was just a nightmare to catalog. Also, an average reader just couldn’t possibly care about such things. So I threw most of that out and then had a clearer idea of what I wanted to write, which I did.

As to comparing Marvel characters and stories to those of other companies and such… I think that to understand Marvel’s impact on the world of comics in the early 1960’s, and on the larger popular culture later in the decade, you have to kind of… contrast what the company was doing, versus what everyone else was doing. Marvel superhero comics really were radical for their time, in that they just had a lot of what I guess you could call ‘realism’ in them. People quarreled, they had girlfriend and money problems, that sort of thing. Most of the time before that, superheroes were just defined by whatever stories they were in, or whatever villain they fought. They were really two-dimensional, or at least I think so. Marvel made them more interesting by making them more human.

Doug: Was it difficult to write the book and think only of the characters? Readers might be interested to know that you mention from time-to-time what was happening at Marvel Comics, and perhaps how business practices and personnel may have shaped the budding mythology. Can we really separate Conan, from say - Roy Thomas? Or does Roy's increasing status/stature in the company need to go hand-in-hand with a discussion of Conan? 

Todd: Yeah, like I said, I wasn’t really trying to do a history of Marvel as a publisher, but at a certain point it would be silly to try and talk about these characters being created without talking about Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Or about Ditko or John Romita if you’re talking about Spider-Man. Especially Lee and Kirby, though… I might get yelled at, but I would say that a good… 85%?… of the important early stuff came just from those two men. And to get a good overall picture, it’s important to know what their working relationship was like, or how the comics were done 100% by freelancers for a long time, how they were limited to publishing only eight titles a month, that sort of thing. Because it all had an effect on what got published.

As far as separating an important character from his creators… well, yes, it’s good to know these things. Giving Spider-Man as an example, John Romita’s smooth art style went a long way toward making the character more approachable to readers later in the 1960’s, I think. Ditko’s weird, unique art style may have been important early on – and he certainly was responsible for so many of Spider-Man’s cool enemies – but I think Marvel needed a Romita on board to take the character’s popularity further, where it needed to go. And now he’s the company’s most important superhero.

Doug: You do a nice job of surveying many key literary events throughout the growth of the Marvel Universe. Did you read all of these comics? And if so, what sort of access do you have to classic comics? 

Todd: Thanks. I really did sit down and read nearly every Marvel superhero comic from 1961 to about 1964… and a goodly number of issues beyond that. Most of them were in reprints. I also have a local friend who has a killer collection of old issues… If you’re willing to spend the time and a little money, you can usually get your hands on darn near every story they published. The ‘Essential’ volumes, for example, provided a nice, cheap way of accessing a lot of material. But then you have to put them all in chronological order, which can be a nightmare…

There were a LOT of stories that I only read for the first time while writing this book… like the first appearance of Ant-Man, the first two Fantastic Four annuals, and so forth. Some of it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped – like, now that I think about it, the return of Captain America in Avengers #4. What a mess that issue was! But some of them astonished me by how good they were… again, like those first two Fantastic Four annuals. Kirby really outdid himself with those. And when Thor got going in the mid-to-late 60’s, like when the living planet Ego was introduced… those stories just knocked me out.

Doug: I enjoyed your style of moving from topic to topic -- you sort of built in some cliffhangers either from section to section or even between chapters. Did you sort of "story board" the project, or does that type of narrative style come to you naturally? 

Todd: I wish I’d put a bit more of that stuff in, to be honest. It does kind of come naturally, though. It helps if you know what you’re going to write about next, as opposed to what you’re working on at the moment. Then you can kind of see where two subjects are going to connect, so you can write a little transition between them. I noticed as I was working on the book that that sort of thing was getting easier as I went along, I guess as I got more comfortable writing it. Of course, I also knew the later source material better than I knew the early stuff.

Also, there were some storylines that I was chomping at the bit to write about. You know, it’s toward the end of 1965, and you’re thinking, ‘Oh boy! Galactus is going to show up soon!’ Or, ‘I finally get to talk about Mary Jane Watson.’ That sort of thing. I was anxious to start talking about my favorite stuff, which is only natural, I guess.

Doug: Winding it down here... So what's your favorite era of Marvel Comics? Does that contrast with an era you feel is most important? 

Todd: As far as ‘most important,’ I would have to say that the years 1962 and 1963 were, because you had so many great characters and titles starting up. Of course, you could also argue that many of the best storylines and such didn’t start showing up until a few years later. Also, like I talk a little about in the book, it took time for Stan Lee to work through a lot of his sort of bad writing habits in the early era. He had been doing run-of-the-mill comics for so long, and now he had to start upping his game. But either way, I don’t think there’s much argument, that if we’re talking about Marvel Comics, the 1960’s were by far the most important period.

It’s also my favorite era, even though by the time I was growing up, it was all in the past. My favorite title is Amazing Spider-Man, and reading those great stories reprinted in Marvel Tales month after month… it was heady stuff. John Romita’s art was just gorgeous, and Stan Lee was at the absolute top of his game. Kirby’s work on FF and Thor was unbelievable. And I just love the Don Heck era of The Avengers where the team consisted mainly of Cap, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Hank Pym. It was all so much fun. 

Doug: You wrap the book up with the All-New, All-Different X-Men. Why? Is that a personal break line for you?

 Todd: Good call, it is kind of a personal break for me. I lose interest in Marvel's output starting in the early 1980's. And frankly, from the standpoint of what the book was meant to accomplish, a lot of what happened from that time forward would be irrelevant. I had to include the modern X-Men - I mean, Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler, etc., simply because of the characters' popularity thanks to the films. That's also the reason I included material about the Guardians of the Galaxy. After all, the book is supposed to be concerned with characters that readers might want to know about.

I realize I left some things out, especially characters that will soon appear in feature films: Deadpool, a lot of those later X-Men characters like Cable, for example. I didn't go into Frank Miller's era on Daredevil, and how it coincided with how a lot of 80's comics took a darker turn. But much of that is just outside the scope of the book. It was always meant to concentrate on the 'classic' Marvel characters, the ones who mainly started appearing in the early 1960's. The further out from that you go, in my opinion, the less relevant things become, at least in the context of the book.

Doug: In closing, I'd again state that it was an easy read -- very accessible, I think novice-friendly. But there's enough in the book to keep even well-studied fans interested. So here's your chance to blow your own horn one last time -- 

Todd: Thanks so much for your kind words. I’m glad you like it. I tried hard to make it accessible to as many readers as possible, and of course there should be plenty of meat there for the die-hard comics fans, especially classic-Marvel fans. Also, thanks for the opportunity to talk with you! It’s been fun.

I should mention that the e-book version comes out on December 20th through the usual places, while the paperback is available on January 20th, although of course you can pre-order at Amazon. I’ll also be selling copies directly from the book’s website at, where everyone can also read the first chapter for free.

Now, if everyone reading this would buy ten copies to hand out on street corners, I can finally start buying the name-brand Ramen noodles instead of the store-label variety…


Edo Bosnar said...

Nice job on the interview, Doug! And thanks, naturally, to Todd for talking about his book.

Also: name-brand Ramen noodles, *sighs longingly* that'll always be the dream...

Doug said...

Thanks, Edo! And -- I was hoping I'd get a chance to talk to you early today (well, for me anyway). Last night I decided to try out some of the Panini digests you've oft-recommended. I bought four from The Book Depository in the UK. I purchased the Cap/Falc, two Thor editions (looks like the stories right after Kirby left), and the Deathlok book. The were each around $8.25 with free S&H. I'll let you know when I get them and have had a chance to read from them.


Edo Bosnar said...

Got the Thor and Deathlok books. And yes, the two Thor books collect everything from Kirby's last issue to about issue #198. The Deathlok volume has me a bit miffed, by the way, because it collects all but one of the original stories in Astonishing Tales - that last issue is being saved for the next volume. Really annoying.
I'm on the fence about that Cap book, though, because it looks like it also includes the three Steranko issues, which I have elsewhere.

However, as you noted, you can't beat the price, and the Book Depository's free worldwide shipping is why I tend to do a lot of business with them (one thing, though, they mail each book separately - so don't be surprised when you receive them in four different mailers, and they probably won't all come on the same day).

Martinex1 said...

Thanks for the interview Doug. New book sounds intriguing. I am very interested in the modern mythology and how that evolved. Enjoyed the discussion. Good luck Todd.

The Prowler said...

Good job Doug. Enjoyed the interview.

One thing I had picked in reading the Bullpen Bulletins from my old 70s Marvels was Stan Lee's genuine surprise at the reception he was receiving as he visited college campuses. As this book starts putting the formative stage into perceptive, those 8 to 12 year olds from the mid 60s were now your college aged kids in the 70s. Throw into that mix 1978's Superman and you had a veritable Gamma Bomb explosion of comic fandom. Upon that bedrock was layered our generation of the mid 70s who were not only reading current Marvel but all those "classic" tales through their reprint line. (Quick aside, it was only recently that I learned that for some of those reprintings, pages were trimmed!!!). Now you have the second explosion, ours this time, of the mid 80s which I think really saw the growth of not only comics but the fan magazines. Some might argue that Wizard was both the birth and death of that industry. IIRC, the 80s was also that time when the industry started to reinvent itself for the "new" generation. Some might say, the "Byrne" years. (Who keeps saying these things?)

Not to tell a man how to chew his cheese but this subject, the reinvention period might make a good follow up book.

Well, True Believers, until next time, Make Mine Mid 70s to early 80s Marvel!!!!

(I'll have a Blue Christmas without you I'll be so blue just thinking about you decorations of red on a green Christmas tree won't be the same dear, if you're not here with me).

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think it's a great idea to chronicle the formative years at Marvel. It's especially interesting to see how Stan and company were trying to reinvent the superhero genre. I agree that Marvel heroes were revolutionary for their time - you had Spidey, the first teenaged hero to headline his own book, the FF who constantly bickered amongst themselves as opposed to the sanitized JLA, Dardevil, a blind superhero and the Hulk who was a superhero but was also a monster.

You could tell these guys were trying something new on the superhero theme, but I'm willing to bet some of those ramen noodles that Stan and the rest of the creators never in their wildest dreams could have imagined how popular these characters like Spidey would become.

Todd's book should be an interesting read for Marvel junkies or anyone interested in general comics history.

- Mike 'the historian' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Anonymous said...

One of things I like most about early Marvel versus DC was the continuity. The whole reason that the original Avengers all left (and then Hank returned) was so that continuity could be maintained across the whole Marvel universe as it expanded. So to see it evolve in this way is, I think, a very valid perspective. As continuity shaped the evolution, that evolution itself shaped a lot of the creativity.

If you look at Steve Englehart a bit later, all of those wonderful Avengers stories he wrote were driven by tying up loose ends, explaining what had come before and ret-conning new explanations of existing characters & plots. He wrote history.

Todd’s book seems to be intentionally a history of the Marvel Universe rather than Marvel publishing, which I think is great as we have plenty of the latter in Howe, Daniels and others.

Having said that, I’m not so sure it will pull in non-fans or indeed that it links that well to the movies. Captain America vaulted about 64 years of publishing in the space of 2 movies, the Guardians were NOT Vance Astro, Martinex etc, the Avengers are proceeding straight to the Infinity War, Xmen to the Age of Apocalypse, Fox are doing Deadpool. We are not proceeding at a steady pace from 1961 to 1975, so a strictly canonical catalogue of that period won’t speak to the movie fans half so well as to the comic book fans.

However, that’s an observation, not a criticism and I’ll be buying my copy as soon as it’s out.


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