Comics : Secrets Behind The Comics

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: Book of the Month Club

This review was first published on: Nov 2014.

Background...

It's important to remember that when Stan Lee created Spider-Man in 1962, he wasn't some up and coming young kid. In fact, he was forty years of age, and had been working in the comics industry since he was seventeen years old.

This book "Secrets Behind The Comics" was published in 1947. Stanley Lieber was 25 years of age, and the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and Hulk were still a decade and a half away in his future.

In Detail...

Secrets Behind The Comics
Year 1947 : Review (No SM)
Publisher:  Famous Enterprises, Inc.
Writer:  Stan Lee
Illustrator:  Ken Bald
Lettering:  Mario Acquaviva
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Review

Much has been said about Stan. Much of it is puffery, romanticism and misremembering. The reality and the fiction of Stan and Marvel have been carelessly blended together, and documented reality is hard to find.

To many people, Stan Lee woke up one day in the early 60's and invented "The Marvel Method", "Spider-Man", "Fantastic Four", the "X-Men", and the "Hulk". Then he donned his trademark sunglasses, smoothed his moustache, and spent the next forty years writing every comic that Marvel produced.

More specifically, the popular story goes that Stan had always wanted to write "The Next Great American Novel". That's why he used a fake name for comics, so we're told. He viewed comic books as a not-particularly-worthy art form, and was on the verge of resigning at the time when he was told by Martin Goodman (publisher and owner at Timely/Marvel Comics) that he needed to come up with a Marvel super-hero team to match DC's Justice League of America.

He approached the task (according to the folk myth) with little gusto, until his lovely wife Joan suggested that he should abandon the standard comic stereotypes of his tired industry, and write the story in the way he really wanted to. Suddenly, Stan discovered that comics could be a great story-telling medium after all, and the rest is history.

It's a attractive tale, suggesting that Stan underwent an inspired change of heart on the day he first imagined the Fantastic Four and saved the comics industry of America. But this little 1947 booklet "Secrets Behind The Comics" might put things into a different perspective for me.

"Secrets" is a mere 92 pages long. It is printed on soft card, with a cover of medium density card, bound cheaply with staples. The entire book is black and white, with the exception of the front and back covers which featured some touches of red ink.

The book cost US$1 back in 1947 (about the price of ten comic books). In modern 2014 money, that's $11 (if you just factor in inflation) or $40 (if you price it at ten modern comics for $4 each). Either way, it's not a cheap product. I can't imagine it was intended to sell in huge numbers.

The book is written in mix of large-font text and illustrations which would certainly have been an innovative narrative format back in its day. It's very much a course-grained precursor to Scott McLeod's far-more detailed work which would follow nearly 50 years later.

Within the limitations of the large print and short page count, our young Stan Lee writes enthusiastically and extensively about the mechanics of the comic book industry. His bubbly humour and informal personable writing style swings us through the commercial, technical and human aspects of the nascent U.S. comic book industry.

In General...

To the modern fan, this book would merely confirm what we all know already about the comic book process. Most of us understand editors, scripts, inkers and pencils and the role between them all. We know about the Marvel Method, comic book distribution, and we can easily imagine the creative elements of the process.

But that's not what makes this book so interesting. For me, the most curious aspects are twofold:

Firstly, I'm staggered by the early date of this work. Until now, I had always considered How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way from 1979 (Lee/Buscema) to be the first book that spilled the beans on the process of comic book creation at Marvel comics. And it's true that "How to Draw" contained enlightening new content related to the layout, musculature and perspective of the "Marvel Style" kicked off by Jack Kirby in the 50's.

But "Secrets Behind The Comics" makes it clear that the "Marvel Method" of writer/artist collaboration was developed at least thirty years earlier. Marvel and Stan Lee's meteoric rise in the 1960's was clearly built on previous decades of hard work.

Secondly, the fact that this book was written at all says a great deal to me about Stan Lee's attitude towards the comic industry at that time. While illustrator Ken Bald put in a lot of work, he was not a writer at all – the structure and content was clearly driven by Stan himself. In addition, the text is incredibly honest, and lacks the bullish self-promulgatory tone which marked Marvel's later self-advertising. And while Marvel (or Timely Comics as it was back then) characters are used, there's no particular attempt to promote the company at all.

So why was it written at all? It doesn't look like a money grabber, nor an advertising platform. There's no indication that Martin Goodman bullied Stan to create it for any reason, nor by any stretch of the imagination could it have satisfied Stan's supposed great literary ambitions.

The sole sensible remaining conclusion is that Stan Lee wrote it because he was proud of the comics industry in which he worked, and that his enthusiasm for his work drove him to share that industry with the public at large.

To me, that paints a new picture of Stan Lee which sits in sharp contrast to the "he was only in comics to make a living" view which is so often suggested.

Overall Rating...

Five Webs, of course. This is a must-own book for any historian of American Comics.

Footnote...

There is also a 1994 blue hardback reprint of this book printed in "super limited edition" (700 copies). Dealers have grabbed up all the stock and are trying to flog copies off for $400 on eBay.

Seriously, what kind of jerk would take an important classic hard-to-find book and run off a super-limited reprint run? The original sells for $300 on eBay. If you wanted to make this important book available to more people, then by all means run off a proper print run and sell it for $10 on Amazon. But no, stupid greed wins the day.