Thursday, December 27, 2012

Cry Marvel! Cry Excelsior!

Let's take another trip into that notorious Batman villain's library for a new book review!

Bookworm's Book Club!

This wild new book is a pretty complete history of Marvel Comics – the company – not the universe they tell their stories in. Starting way back in the early part of the 20th century, the book traces the origins of the company that really started (under the name Timely Comics) with the publication of Marvel Comics #1 in 1939 and proceeds to lay out the ups and downs of the company through to the release of The Avengers movie earlier this summer.

Mmmmmmm....comics goodness...

What a ride it is, too! Howe’s punchy prose style and willingness to cut through the company PR and spin machine helps to sort out the various versions offered in official sources and legends - and to give a warts and all history of what really went on. Stan Lee is featured throughout – and not always in a positive light, despite his perpetually sunny manner; in this book he is much more nuanced; he perpetually longs to escape the comic book business that he is synonymous with - no matter how much success it brings – and he takes some shots too – from lack of support for some of the people working for him, to the rather needless revelation that he has been wearing a toupee for decades. Jack Kirby comes off as the grouchy genius – and his image as a persecuted workhorse gets a good going over – though not with huge depth (there are whole books about Kirby and his battles with the comics biz). Steve Ditko is shown to be the outsider – becoming a reclusive activist and follower of Ayn Rand even as his relationship with Stan Lee deteriorates into not speaking to each other while still working on the same books.

Ditko might have been upset about this centerfold Stan did. I know I can't unsee it.
And now, neither can you!

Throughout the book Howe boils all of the gossip, rumors, and official news to find the more complicated human story underneath. No writer or artist comes off as persistently good or consistently right – everyone is shown to be fairly complex and flawed – and this serves to make these long-read names into the human beings we never got to know no matter how many Bullpen Bulletins or Stan’s Soapboxes we read.

Here's the Marvel Pantheon of live-action heroes for special appearances back in the day.

In addition to the interpersonal strife that plays a part across the decades, the main drama the company faced was from a series of corporate raiders with no interests in the artform of comics - just in how much money they can make with a quick run and gun approach that did generate big sales initially, but eventually served to undermine the usually carefully constructed universe that was the initial draw for most fans.

While the book's history thins a bit going in to the 21st century - I got caught up on the world of comics that I left behind when I gave up reading new comics in 2004. (That was my third time giving them up - it was always a price hike that did it - and this most recent one has held. Although I do have a stack of the Marvel Essentials and DC Showcase Presents black and white reprints volumes I'm working my way through.)

If you're a comics fan at all - I think you'd enjoy this book - even if you mainly used to read DC comics. If you're a card carrying M.M.M.S. member, or a Marvel Zombie - you cannot miss this one.

Check it out!

Until next post, you Can Poke Me With A Fork, Cause I Am Outta Here!


  1. Stan Lee is great, but he's also jackass of the highest order, demanding to own creative intellectual property of artists who worked for him, even projects that weren't done in the name of Marvel. He also went so far as to take the work and shelve it in perpetuity just so the artist could not take it elsewhere. That's low.

    1. I'm not sure that Stan himself demanded it - though as a company man he certainly toed the line when Marvel demanded it. Stan was also not one to share credit for the co-creation of the Marvel Heroes for a long time - though he's better about that these days. I'm not sure what work he would have shelved - if it was anything produced after the mid 70's he wasn't even really running the show - he was out in California trying to get Marvel Movies going - something that only took him about 25 years. But if it was before that - and if it was something the Marvel bosses said to shelve - then he probably did. I know he has feet of clay - but he's still a writer who has brought me a lot of joy - so I'm always going to like him. But I can understand where you're coming from as a writer.

    2. Oh I like him, too. There is no doubt all the joy he has brought to people. I just remember reading articles back in the 90's and early 2000's about Stan the Man's tude with fellow Marvel artists while in charge. He was pretty famous for shelving things like napkin doodles, scratch paper drawings, anything that might be taken out of the Marvel house as potential competition. I also remember talking with friends who are deep into the comic world and while they love Stan, they know he's got huge feet of clay.