This "Museum-in-a-Book" has a marked price of U.S. $50, though Amazon offers it for under $40. I picked up my copy for half-price from my local comic shop, not really knowing what I was buying. The product is sold shrink-wrapped, and the pages are hidden in a cardboard insert, so in fact I actually believed I was purchasing a tin-metal box of reproduction collectibles.
In fact, this is no such thing. It's a collection of 96 individually cut leaves which are ring-bound in a large metal loop binding to produce a 192-page book. Some of those pages are clear-plastic which inset pockets containing reproduction items from Marvel's history. The cover is thick and luxuriously covered.
The nature of the ring-bound pages is such that they need to be turned carefully to avoid damage. Combined with the bulky size of this book at 12.5" x 10.5" x 1.75" deep, this isn't really the kind of thing you could read on the bus. It really wants to be laid down on a desk or coffee table and appreciated in comfort.
The content covers the history of Marvel from 1939 to the modern-day (2007 to be specific). The focus on the book is predominantly the history of Marvel itself, rather than the history of the heroes and villains. This is no "Marvel Encyclopedia" or "Cut-Down Index to the Marvel Universe". From start to finish, the stars of this show are Martin Goodman, Bill Everett, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, John Romita, and all the other key figures who made Marvel what it is today.
That's not to say that the Captain America, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Hulk, and other friends don't make an appearance. To the contrary, each is introduced, outlined and depicted as they appear in chronological continuity. But throughout, the focus of the tale is the behind-the-pages happenings. Arrivals and departures, shifts in public preferences, and the rise and fall of Marvel's fortunes are all fitted into their place.
Of course, much of this is already well-covered elsewhere. Perhaps the definitive (and long overdue for an updated edition) work is Les Daniels' Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades which offers a very similar focus, and considerably more detail. The "Marvel Vault" breaks down the history of Marvel into the same natural time periods as used by "Five Decades" and adds two more. Specifically, each decade is a fairly clear break-point, with the exception of the 50's which ran over a little into 1961 before Fantastic Four #1 began the new era.
For a more thorough examination of the general history of American comics in the early years, Comic Book Nation by Bradford W. Wright is the place to go. Other overlapping works would include parts of Joe Simon's The Comic Book Makers , Stan Lee's biography Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee and the flawed but still fascinating Comic Wars for a look into the messy business of the financial wheelings and dealings of the 90's Marvel Empire.
So where does the "Marvel Vault" fit into all of this? Well, despite the fact that nearly all of its content is a subset of Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades, I believe it does occupy a worthy place. Specifically because of the following differences.
Firstly, as befits its price tag, "The Marvel Vault" is physically a most beautiful book. Certainly "Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades" is also solid and well-illustrated, but The Vault has a richness of color and construction which supersedes that by another level. The binding isn't particularly convenient, but when laid out flat, the book is a joy to behold.
Secondly, while "Marvel Vault" is far less thorough than "Five Decades", it does cover all of the essential events and decisions (internal and external to the company) which guided and shaped Timely/Marvel during those years. Of the 192 pages, about half of every second page is given over to text. The remainder is glorious full-color art reproducing key covers, photos and stories of the time. This means that an hour's solid but pleasant reading will finish the book.
So, yes, this is a book with a definite focus on readability and attractiveness. But nonetheless, the major milestones are identified and described - from the first decision to enter comics, to Stan Lee's reluctant decision to give Timely comics one last chance and throw together a script for the Fantastic Four #1, through to an (unfortunately rather too lightweight) summary of the changes in the recent decade or two.
Thirdly, and perhaps surprisingly least importantly, there are the "reproduction collectibles". These are little historical artifacts, reproduced and slipped into the plastic sleeves which intersperse the pages. Included are:
I guess all of this stuff is cool, and definitely makes this a "unique" concept. I was, however, hoping for a reproduction "No-Prize". Seems a shame to leave that out!
In summary, there is no doubt that "The Marvel Vault" is something special. It's a great gift for the more mature Marvel fan in your life, and if you have a coffee table safe from children, it will certainly attract the interest of visitors.
Sure, it's not the most authoritative work on the history of Marvel. I also spotted one error, and identified a couple of spots where the history jumped a little bit fast without sufficient explanation. Also there was more than one occasion where I think that writers Roy Thomas and Peter Sanderson were a little kinder than history really ought to be. For example, former Marvel publisher Bill Jemas's scripting of Marville was mentioned, without also pointing out that it is one of the most embarrassing comics they have ever produced.
However, I can understand the decision to put the knives away when writing "The Marvel Vault". This is clearly intended to be a joyous and nostalgic celebration of Marvel's history. In that aim, it most certainly succeeds.
If you're looking for the full story, Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades is what you need. But "The Marvel Vault" is a wonderful way to catch up the highs and lows of Marvel's fascinating past. The book is delightful, and the reproduction collectibles are icing on the cake. I really feel obliged to give the full five webs.
Writer Roy Thomas was, of course, editor and writer at Marvel for many years. Writer Peter Sanderson is also the author of Marvel Universe which plots the past antics of Marvel's heroes and villains, and as such is the the perfect companion volume to Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades. Sanderson also worked within Marvel for some time.
The love that these two characters have for both Marvel and its creations is clearly evident in their writing, and probably explains their reluctance to air Marvel's dirty laundry in public.