My personal journey as a Marvel Comics Aficionado has been a journey of discovery and learning. As a kid, I stumbled across a Spider-Man comic at a newsagent, and became an instant SpiderFan. I purchased every issue of The Amazing Spider-Man (in black and white reprints, thanks to Marvel's dispute with the local distribution agent), and I wasn't aware of other titles at all. I paid no attention to the writer or the artist, I was simply hooked on the stories.
At college, I discovered color comics, other titles, and back issues. I started buying the X-Men, and learned the name Chris Claremont. Spider-Man had a new look, and Todd McFarlane was a star. Bill Sienkiewicz made New Mutants awesome, then Rob Liefeld made it expensive. Thanks to classic reprints I learned to distinguish Roger Stern from Stan Lee, and John Romita from Steve Ditko.
But even so, these people were just names. I had no idea how they all fitted together. I needed some sense of connected history. I needed Marvel Context.
The first book to give me a real sense of that history was the ground-breaking Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades created by dedicated Marvel Fan Les Daniels in 1991. This book gave me a basic appreciation of how Marvel grew from Timely Comics and transformed itself into the number one comic book company in the world. But while Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades was excellent, it was also a product of its time. Marvel Comics at that time was riding a wave of foil covers and million-copy comic book sales.
And so while indeed Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades does offer some sense of history, it really didn't dig a great deal of dirt. There's an "everything is awesome" mood to the telling, and clearly nobody wanted to rock the boat while there was so much money to be made in the overheated market of the day. Les Daniels' writing shows the loving care of a close observer, but not the harsh insight of an industry insider. What's more, the book ended up being as much (if not more) about the creations rather than the creators.
There are other books which have since taken a more objective look at the inner workings of Marvel Comics, The Stan Lee Universe and Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book being two great examples. But there's something we need to get straight here before we start. For many years, Marvel Comics would have had you believe that the story of Marvel Comics and the story of Stan Lee were one and the same. But they are not.
Yes, once upon a time, Stan Lee was the heart of Marvel Comics. Working with and through Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Wally Wood, Bill Everett and others, Stan was the ring-master of the Marvel Circus (up until 1972 when he became Publisher and Roy Thomas took over as Editor-in-Chief). But his involvement from that time onwards was greatly diminished, almost superficial in real terms. You'll read about that.
And so, we come to the book at hand: "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story".
This is, utterly, definitively and forever the history of Marvel Comics from its dusty origins in 1933 until the current day. Doubtless some time around 2030 another writer will take up the baton, fill out some more detail for 2000-2010 and then slap two more decades on the end. But they won't bother covering the first seven decades, because that is done. Finished. Perfect.
This book is a work of inspired research and investigation. Over five years, Sean Howe interviewed over 150 current and former Marvel employees and observers. He painstakingly read through every fanzine, Stan's Soapbox, and newspaper interview. As a result, he has collected in one place pretty much every scrap of relevant information which previously was in the public domain. Then he has added a wealth of additional material – from new sources, but also from old sources who are prepared to now offer reminiscences that once (mindful of their need to stay employed) they might have decided to discretely refrain from sharing.
The result is staggering. The inside history of Marvel is laid bare, and it has changed the way I read comics. When I first read Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #300, Secret Wars, or Marvel Knights: Spider-Man, I read them simply as stories. I now see them in context as strategic directions, or as personal creative visions. When I read Stan's Soapbox: The Collection and read Stan's testimonial to John Verpoorten, "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story" then explained to me exactly what Lee meant when he referred to his "extraordinary generosity".
Everything is in here. Are you curious about the shifting battle lines between Jack Kirby and Marvel regarding his ownership rights? That's right here, charted over several decades.
Want to know about Image comics and the "Heroes Reborn" fiasco? "Marville"? The background to "Secret War", "Howard the Duck", the war of words (and occasionally lawyers) between Stan and Kirby, or Stan and Ditko? All here. The details of the Editor-in-Chief revolving door in the 70's? The listing, collapse and buyout in the 90's? Sure, the legal battle is described in even more detail in Comic Wars, but "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story" does a better job of talking about how the people at Marvel were affected by the fallout.
The distribution struggles. The independent creator battles. The years of Jim "Devil or Savior?" Shooter. Jim Lee. Tom DeFalco's era. Quesada. Malibu. Marvelmania. Heroes World. Just... read the book already.
This book is an essential piece of research for the dedicated Marvel Fan. But more than that, it's also a hugely entertaining story for anybody with even the slightest interest in pop culture.
The detail is extraordinary, the personal stories are touching and insightful. Sean Howe constantly reminds us that the history of Marvel is not the saga of a corporate entity, but is the tale of the people who formed it. It is the story of the creative writers and artists, but also of the editors, publishers and sales people who made their work possible at the best of times, and who made their lives hell at the worst of times.
This book is not for everybody. If you see the House of Marvel as eight decades of Stan Lee kindly smiling over a hundred happy workers, then boy have you got another think coming. "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story" is "the red pill", and there's no going back.
Five Webs, no question.