Peter Sanderson is a Marvel Historian with an impeccable pedigree. His track record includes Marvel Chronicle: A Year By Year History, Marvel Universe, The Marvel Vault, Obsessed With Marvel plus work on Marvel Saga, Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (Deluxe), Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (Master Edition) and various other reference works.
Perhaps as a reward for his hard work, he has been given the chance to work on a wonderful project. This 7.5" x 10.5" hardback book from 2005 was packaged as a gift set with four Marvel Figurines. Inside is 128 glossy pages of detailed character profile on Captain America, Spider-Man, the Hulk, and Wolverine.
The four characters spotlighted in this tome were carefully chosen to give the broadest possible spectrum of Marvel's portfolio.
Captain America was the earliest of Marvel's super-stars, dating from the Golden Age of Comics, nearly two decades before the others. From the Silver Age we have Spider-Man and the Hulk, both who broke new ground. Spider-Man was a novelty as a teenage hero in his own right, facing every day problems alongside his heroic challenges. Hulk was an anti-hero, untrusted and feared. Finally, Wolverine represents the new breed of super-hero. Edgy, dangerous, and thoroughly modern.
For each character, Sanderson offers an extensive character history. In each case, the characters "origin" is described and illustrated with key panels from classic comics. For many books, this would be sufficient, but in this case, this is only the beginning.
Sanderson continues on to explain the relevance of the social context in which the character was created. He then follows the character throughout their career, identifying key changes and events. The creative individuals and teams responsible those changes are examined, along with the reasons for and the consequences of these changes.
This book is very much a historian's point of view. Major villains are referenced only when they have some specific relationship to the development of the primary character. But despite the academic focus, it is far from boring.
If you have any interest in these beloved classic characters above the superficial POW! SMASH! BOOM! level, and if you can read a whole page of text in one sitting without needing a little lie-down afterwards to recover, then I think you'll find something of interest in this book. It offers an explanation of how these characters came to be be created, how they developed, and who at Marvel shared the responsibility for their success.
Unfortunately, while Sanderson's history is faultless, I can't always agree with some of his extrapolated comments. For example, at one point he refers to John Byrne having restored the "Grey Hulk" and explains John Byrne (among others) as being motivated by a "tendency to regard Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's 1960's Marvel stories as if they were holy scripture."
Would this be the same John Byrne who gave us Spider-Man: Chapter One and attempted to have the entire rewriting of Spider-Man's early years declared as official canon, trampling and replacing Stan Lee's original version?
In another example, Sanderson attempts to explain the failure of the title She Hulk (Vol. 1) by suggesting that it was "presumably ... too much like the original Hulk without establishing a distinctive identity of her own."
Or alternatively, it could have been because the stories were incredibly badly written?
Sanderson also is excessively inaccurate in his forecasts. For example, he was rather upbeat about the movie "Hulk (2003)", despite its lukewarm reception by audiences and critics alike. While Sanderson talks optimistically about an upcoming sequel, in reality Marvel quickly abandoned the earlier Ang Lee effort, and started again from scratch only a few years later - an extraordinary slap in the face for the original film.
Similarly, noting the success of the first two X-Men movies, he speaks glowingly of the upcoming X-Men 3 and the Wolverine tie-in movie. Sadly, as we know, the final X-Men film was disappointing, while the Wolverine flick was a completely unmitigated embarrassment!
When working with dates, names, places and social context, Sanderson is an exceptional historian. Unfortunately, when attempting to ascribe motivations to people, and when looking into the future, his success rate is much less impressive.
Nonetheless, this book provides a thorough introduction to the four characters in those aspects of their creation and development that are so frequently ignored by other "Guides", "Encyclopedia" and "History Books". While there are no new ground-breaking facts or ideas in this book, if you're looking to start your journey into the history of Marvel characters, this is as good a place to start as any.
The boxed set is very good value if you shop around on eBay. From a marketing point, however, there is one major problem with the boxed set. Looking at the packaging, it's not at all clear that it actually contains a book. The book is hidden behind cardboard, and so to a casual viewer it would appear that all you are purchasing is four figurines.
When I did actually see the artwork of the book, I didn't personally find it particularly appealing. I would describe my initial assessment more as "confusing and overworked". However, after a couple of days of having it lying around as I read my way through, I'm less negative about it, and rather perhaps just a bit more ambivalent.
But overall, the positive far outweighs the negative. I give it four webs.
For a more wide-ranging coverage of Marvel's history in general, try Sanderson's Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades . For a far more in-depth examination of the history of comics as a social phenomena, I can recommend the challenging but rewarding essays in Comic Book Nation.