Review- Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

Marvel Comics: The Untold Storyby Sean Howe
Longtime fans of Marvel Comics are no strangers to the ups and downs the company has had over the years. Whispers of editorial interference, animosity towards Stan Lee, who spent years as the face of the company, and not to mention the startup of Image Comics in the 90s, which occurred when four Marvel artists grew weary with the politics of the industry. Though this did little to stop readership throughout the times, it did make for a tumultuous history. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, a new book by Sean Howe, details the company’s history.

Howe holds back very little in his retelling of the history of Marvel, documenting nearly everything from the early years as Timely Comics straight through to the blockbuster 2012 release of The Avengers in theaters, and the whole gamut in between. He treads carefully to avoid interjecting his own opinion on certain events, choosing to merely report on things as they happened. Though he drops a few snarky comments into the mix, such as Marvel’s fanning of the speculation fire in the 90s “comics boom”, most of the book is an objective look back at how the company did business.

Like a good comic book, Marvel Comics manages to find a few villains throughout the years. From Stan Lee in the 50s, after having to layoff a number of high profile artists who vowed never to work for Marvel again, to Jim Shooter in the 80s, whose editorial pig-headedness led to more than a few unhappy employees, to marvel itself in the 80s and 90s, who continued to OK bad ideas like “collector’s editions” comics, ignoring the very idea that good stories will sell issues. (While it didn’t seem Howe’s intention to portray these villains as such, this was the impression I got from them.) What I like best is how Howe divides the book logically, group chapters by time periods or editorial reign, similar to the way Marvel now writes for trades with clear beginnings and endings of their series.

1983 photo of Stan Lee// Photo credit: Eliot R. Brown
From the moment I first heard about Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, I was excited to pick it up. As a self-professed Marvel Zombie, I wanted to know everything I could about the company. Though I had known a lot of what I read, like the fallout between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, and…well, Stan Lee and almost anybody, I learned a few shocking tidbits. For example, the on-again, off-again relationship between Marvel and Howard the Duck creator Steve Gerber, including the legal embitterment that surround the Duck.

Much of the later years of Marvel are glossed over, with the last two decades being summarized in a few chapters. The incarnation of Image Comics is given little consideration, as is Marvel’s legal battles between Ron Perelman, who purchased Marvel in 1989, and business magnate, Carl Icahn, who had his sights set on taking over Marvel and its trademarks (however, the entirety of this story is covered thoroughly in the 2002 book Comic Wars by Dan Raviv).

From the opening page, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is mesmerizing. Howe gets into great detail about the legacy Marvel has left behind, having interviewed a number of people who were involved with the company over the years. Even the most pain-filled moments are included, such as the lonesome death of production manager John Verpoorten in 1977. (Verpoorten’s role at Marvel wasn’t explored at length, but he made a lasting impression at the company and his death hit them hard.)

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a raw look at a business that has been the apple of many investor’s eyes and is known by a majority of the population. I recommend any comics fan to read this book to get a better sense of how Marvel came up through the years. I would also recommend many employees of Marvel and even DC Comics to read the book as a reminder of what worked and what didn’t. In a cyclical industry like comic books, companies are bound to make mistakes. Marvel has already made most of those mistakes and I’d hate for them to make them again. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” goes the quote from George Santayana. We can only hope that Marvel’s mistakes can help future business leaders to succeed.  

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