Seven thoughts on Marvel: The Untold Story by Sean Howe

1. It’s a miracle any good comics ever get published by big companies. The book paints a picture of an industry where at a certain power level or higher almost everyone involved despises the product. This is dysfunctional even by media standards: obviously dealmaking and money count for more than art at the top of the film and music industries but you can still basically imagine label and studio bosses getting some level of enjoyment from a film or album. Not so in comics (though the situation may have changed – understandably, we don’t get the optics on the current Disney ownership we do on anything else). A closer parallel – from fans to owners – might be English football.

2. That “certain power level” turns out to be Stan Lee, who doesn’t come out of Untold Story very well. The book is even-handed on the vexed question of who created what in the Marvel Universe – and whether you frame it in terms of marketing, verbal dynamism or great character ideas, Stan had an undeniable hot streak in the early 60s. But before and after that he gives no great impression of liking comics except as the bedrock of his own dubious celebrity: he spends the bulk of the book flitting in and out of the story as a Hollywood wannabe, ineffectually trying to get films made in between hob-nobbing with celebs and grouching that he could have been a novelist.

3. The book has more to say about Marvel office politics – the Merry Marvel Marchin’ Papers – than Marvel art. The occasional bits of comics criticism are incisive, but the book doesn’t suffer for its skew: there’s plenty out there on the comics and less on the working conditions and personalities of the men and women behind them. The corporate culture is subject to fascinating swings. In the 60s, a drab understaffed office is painted as a whirling hive of zany creativity by Lee. In the 80s, while Jim Shooter puts the company in a creative straitjacket, the culture goes in the other direction as staffers work consciously to create the happy Bullpen Camelot that Stan dreamed up. Meanwhile the body count (non-metaphorical) keeps rising.

4. Minor lacunae (1): The book is candid about some of the main influences on 70s Marvel – pot and acid. No surprise or shame there, of course – the comics appealed to college kids, the drugs appealed to college kids, some of those college kids ended up writing the comics, and by logical means one arrives at The Beast reading Carlos Castaneda. What is interesting is the way drugs (& hedonism in general) drop entirely out of the story after the 70s. After all, the 80s had its signature drugs too, and the comics business was still being staffed mostly by young guys, and there was a lot of money sloshing around, blah blah. So I’m guessing there are other sides to some of the decisions (creative and business) on show here. On the other hand, this isn’t Marvel Babylon, and the early 70s stoner culture at Marvel is important because of the bleedthrough into the comics: 80s Marvel was fiercely anti-drug, even if the drugs were always made up.

5. Minor lacunae (2): The jump between “Marvel constantly fucks up Hollywood deals” and “Marvel is the darling of Hollywood” is very sudden indeed. To be honest, I’m not sad about this – details of the failed deals were mostly utterly tedious with the occasional LOL (following the implosion of disco and the failure of its transmedia plans for Dazzler, Marvel attempted to sell a country superhero called “Denim Blue”). And the rights situation was notoriously complicated so simply saying “the rights issues were a massive problem until they weren’t” is basically fine. But the picture of Marvel at the end of the 90s is SO grim that the turnaround needs more space: OK, it’s down to Perlmutter, Avi Arad etc. but why? What did they do right? (Unless it is all because of Bill Jemas insisting on recap pages) It’s too easy with hindsight to just accept that superhero films – and in particular Marvel films – were always going to be enormous once somple finally made them. Howe doesn’t, in fact he points out why stuff like the FF and Spider-Man were tough pitches, so the sudden success comes as even more of a “whuh?”

6. I had heard some of the stories in the book before but they’re well told and there is plenty new here with lots of great incidental detail: Alan Weiss and his harem of stewardesses, Jim Shooter’s plan to kill off Captain America and replace him with an investment banker, the transcript of Todd MacFarlane’s answering machine message firing Rob Liefeld from Image, and so on. Plus one of the best snapshots of the 90s boom insanity: Tom DeFalco getting pre-orders back on a title starring eighth-stringer Silver Sable and realising the game was up because they’d only – only! – sold half a million.

7. In the end it’s a very readable, very recommendable book which only runs out of steam to the degree its subject does. Like the comics, the book keeps telling the same story: creativity sparks, flames on, and gets snuffed out. Not all the creativity is good, not all the snuffers are unsympathetic, but broadly that’s the story. Quality at Marvel seems to be as permanent as character death at Marvel – find a book you like and, if you wait long enough, someone will screw it up. But it keeps bubbling through nonetheless.