Oct 12

Secret Wars

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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.


  1. 1

    […] Tom Ewing reviews Marvel: The Untold Story […]

  2. 2
    DV on 18 Oct 2012 #

    An interesting review. But I fear actually reading the book could be a bit soul destroying.

  3. 3
    Taj on 26 Oct 2012 #

    Surely the answer to “whuh?” is basically “CGI”. Once it became possible to make large-scale superhero films that didn’t look embarrassingly bad, all it took was a single hit (X-Men, as it happened, but it could have been a DC film or Thpawn or whatever) and away they went.

    What this doesn’t explain is the wildly uncharacteristic run of largely competent film-making we’ve been enjoying since Iron Man and Dark Knight.

  4. 4
    Tom on 26 Oct 2012 #

    You’re probably right about the CGI! Though the costumes still look pretty crap IMO.

    As for quality, I’ve barely seen any of them all through – the Avengers on a plane (it was OK), Batman Begins inattentively whenever it was on TV (it was OK). “Largely competent” seems about right :)

    (When was Green Lantern? I saw 20 minutes of that. Ugh.)

  5. 5
    swanstep on 26 Oct 2012 #

    @Taj. You’re setting your standards fairly low though. Iron Man was indeed pretty good….until the third act when it turned into lots of very dull suited-up fighting (indeed that’s the model to have: all the best bits of even the best superhero movies are at the beginning, after which they degenerate into numbing cgi and fighting; walk out 2/3s of the way through and you haven’t missed anything). Iron Man 2 was unbelievably boring (who even remembers it?). Dark Knight has lots of third act problems (the film’s only really saved by Ledger in my view and not even he can help much in the third act – the final Batman-Joker confrontation is desultory and just kind of peters out (who even remembers what happened to the Joker at the end of TDK?)). TDKR is one absurdity after another and again has a decaying/desultory quality to it (Who even remembers what happened to Bain?). Haven’t seen Green Lantern, but by all accounts it’s pants, and surely nobody’s that thrilled by Thor or Captain America (I watched the former on a laptop at some point but can barely remember it). Spiderman 3 was completely unwatchable (gave up in disgust on tv), and I haven’t seen the recent reboot (but who really was that enthusiastic about that?). That leaves The Avengers which I suppose does kind of deliver the goods: all the pulling the team together stuff is great fun and hilarious, and then there’s only the slightly generic (another f-ing cube MacGuffin, more not-especially-threatening, target practice aliens) quality of the big battle at the end to hold it back.

    I guess if you’re prepared to write off third act problems then there is a sense in which ‘largely competent’ is a fair assessment of the post-Iron Man crop. But that’s a lot of missed chances for someone to make a completely successful superhero film (although The Avengers comes closest). I’d rate The Incredibles a lot higher than any of them (and probably give the edge to the first two Spider-man films over The Avengers too). Relative to the movie-making resources they’ve hogged, post-Iron Man comic-book movies look to me to be quite unsuccessful (i.e., we’d almost certainly have more completely successful movies by now if those same budgets had been spread over other genres), except strictly financially.

  6. 6
    Taj on 26 Oct 2012 #

    Ha, sure enough, I have no recollection what happened to the Joker at the end of TDK. I adored Avengers – almost Ellis/Hitch’s Authority brought to life. Hence needs to be seen on widescreen!

    Thinking about my simplistic theory a bit more, it seems amazing that the appallingly successful 1978 Superman didn’t prompt anything from Marvel – is this where the book’s “Marvel constantly fucks up Hollywood deals” theme starts? I see that the 1989 Batman was followed swiftly by desperate-looking Punisher and Captain America movies.

  7. 7
    Mark M on 27 Oct 2012 #

    Re 6: Exactly, 1978’s Superman established that there was a market for superhero films made at a non-B movie level, but none of the Hollywood studios – Superman was made by the Salkinds, eccentric Russian-Mexicans who operated in Europe – seemed willing to take the leap. Likewise, the Burton/Schumacher Batmans… So I think the arrival of CGI helped, but that’s not the whole story.

    I feel Swanstep is a bit harsh on the recent Marvel films – I liked Iron Man 2, and I really liked (and everyone I knew who saw it really liked) Captain America (it’s funny, Hugo Weaving does an awesome Werner Herzog impression), Avengers Assemble/The Avengers is terrific. I thought nu-Spiderman is unnecessary but passingly interesting in some of its choices, but I didn’t even like the first Sam Raimi one anyway.

    I have big problems with Christopher Nolan but enjoyed Batman Begins. The Dark Knight Rises is a film with a whole load of fairly obvious flaws.

    I can’t imagine there being a better superhero film than The Incredibles.

  8. 8
    swanstep on 28 Oct 2012 #

    @Mark M, 7. Maybe I was a bit harsh about IM2 and I certainly sloughed right over Captain America (which I haven’t seen)! Moreover, about The Avengers: my only problem with it was with the slightly dull/routine final act. Beyond that I thought it was pretty great. Most strikingly, we’d had two Hulks before, but Joss Whedon’s/Ruffalo’s Hulk just crushed them (although maybe the key is that Hulk just works better when he doesn’t have to carry the whole movie), and we’d also had two superhero team franchises before – X-men and Fantastic 4 – but Whedon’s take on ‘a combustible team of supers’ felt instantly superior/much more fun. Very simple core achievements in a way, but very impressive too, and it meant that The Avengers retroactively slightly elevated/justified all the other films – Thor/CA/IM etc., the whole latter-day Marvel Films project really – that had led up to it. Whedon’s a very talented guy and The Avengers’ mega-success means that he’ll be able to do *exactly* what he wants from here on. Yay.

  9. 9
    swanstep on 29 Oct 2012 #

    Joss Whedon also rather good on the Romney zombie apocalypse.

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