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Monday, January 14, 2013

MARVEL COMICS: THE UNTOLD STORY by Howe

Just some quick thoughts as a placeholder on a book I might want to do a full review of later.

I was kind of disappointed by Sean Howe's recent MARVEL COMICS: THE UNTOLD STORY. I guess my expectations were a bit high, since it was pretty heavily praised by quite a few people whose opinions I respect. I guess overall it's okay for what it is, a breezy pop history of the publisher, with a special emphasis on a few items of special interest to the writer. I guess I've read too much about the stuff I'm interested in, since there wasn't that much I learned about comics I liked, and just some trivia I've already started to forget about the comics I don't care for.  Howe seems to like 1970s Marvel a lot, whereas my history of Marvel in the 1970s is "Jack Kirby left, Steve Gerber and Gene Colan did some interesting work both together and separately, Jack Kirby came back for a little while and soon after Gerber and Colan were gone. And Steve Ditko came back towards the end of the decade, drawing characters he didn't create". Howe seems to like Gerber, so it was cool that his work got a significant amount of attention. In comparison to their importance, I thought the 1960s got way too little room, there's a lot more you can get into there that I've read about in interviews with and articles by the people who were there, and the later eras got too much, and a lot of the wrong stuff was emphasized from those eras (the entire Epic line just seems to get a few passing references). And overall I think the book was too kind to a few individuals, presenting their stories in a "their side, everyone else's side, you figure out the truth" manner. I will say I took a certain joy in Tom DeFalco's telling of Jim Shooter's final days in charge.



Where I actually did learn a lot was the material on the various executives in charge of Marvel. Mostly that there seems to be a parade of incompetence, malfeasance and dishonesty in those positions, with no clear idea of what they had and how to properly exploit it until they happened to stumble into the success in the movie business more in spite of their actions than because of them.

The book did need at least one more run-through by a comics knowledgeable fact checker. Roy Thomas has some corrections specific to his areas of expertise (the Golden Age and his own career) here and here, and I noticed a number of things that seemed off, some of them easy to verify. Jerry Siegel is referred to as a "sixty-three year old proof-reader" circa 1968, when simple math would show that meant he co-created Superman in his late-20s and sold it to DC in his mid-30s, so definitely off by ten years. And there's a reference to George Perez's 1998 return to AVENGERS being his first work for Marvel in over 20 years, which is wrong twice, since he left for DC only 18 years earlier, and had worked on Marvel books like INFINITY GAUNTLET and HULK: FUTURE IMPERFECT earlier in the 1990s.

So, y'know, read it, don't take any of it as gospel (which isn't an expression I should use, since I don't take the Gospels as gospel...), pick up a bunch of ALTER EGOs, KIRBY COLLECTORs and Ditko essays for more details on the important stuff.

4 comments:

  1. The book's coverage of Timely-Atlas-Marvel 1939-1971 was what I anticipated so it's hard to say I was disappointed. I'd say the coverage was standard, which is unfortunate.
    My impression is Howe is a fan of Lee and presents what he sees as a fair and balanced account. There are many places in the book where he seems inclined to cast doubt on comments about Lee by Kirby, Wood, and Ditko.
    Howe chose to deliver the official story; which is really Stan Lee's BS.
    Where I really object to seeing Lee's nonsense parroted as history is in books and magazines where Jack Kirby is the subject. Both the Charles Hatfield book on Kirby as well as most of the recent issues of TJKC have been hugely disappointing to me in the way they describe Kirby's role at Marvel.
    I think there are a few reasons you constantly see accounts of the era with an obvious pro-Lee bias. The primary reason is most people writing about the era are huge fans of Stan Lee who completely buy into his "Smilin' Stan" persona and can't imagine Lee as anything like the Funky Flashman.
    I'm also convinced most people inclined to have serious questions about Lee's honesty are unwilling to voice those opinions in print due to personal and commercial considerations. It's been demonstrated in the past that even mild questioning concerning Lee's public statements leads to personal attacks and threats to cancel subscriptions. And of course Lee's loyal legions favorite ploy (and this is major buzz word for them) is to brand anyone critical of Lee as a Kenyan...sorry, "cultist."
    And there is the fact the world of comics is deeply insular, rooted in nostalgia and personal relationships going back to childhood. Lee's fans typically have an amazingly strong emotional attachments to the Smilin' Stan persona. A book critical of Lee could write off the 90% of people interested in comics who are adoring fans of Lee, and be left with the 10% who would like to see such a book. That is not a good formula for commercial success.
    For all these reasons I don't think there will ever be a good book on the era, unless by some chance a writer from outside the "comics community" becomes interested and decides to write a book for an audience not largely comprised of comic book fans. That certainly isn't the case with MARVEL COMICS THE UNTOLD STORY. The book is very clearly aimed at fans of Marvel and has been marketed in a way designed to attract Marvel fans. The marketing through it's web sites has actually represented the book as being far more "fannish" than it is.

    Patrick Ford

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  2. I thought Howe breezed through the sixties so fast I not have a clear idea of what his views of those issues are. I kept expecting some more detailed stuff after he laid out the basic chronology of events, instead he just kept into the post Kirby period.

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  3. Bob, The book reads as if Sean is a fan of the early '70s era at Marvel, and that's they story he focused on. In that context the scant attention paid to the earlier years makes sense.
    Sean seems like a nice guy, and a mature individual who doesn't go into a rage if Stan Lee's honesty is questioned, but he does come across as inclined to see Lee's version of events as more legitimate than things said by Ditko, Wood, and Kirby. There are quite a few examples I could give, but here is one.
    On page 52 of the book Howe describes Wood as "given to playing little games."And this is the very first page Wood where is mentioned in the book so to the casual reader from that point on a picture of Wood as kind of an ass has been painted. On page 78 of the book Howe mentions in a footnote:

    "Wally Wood told stories---somewhat unlikely stories---about Stan Lee sitting on a filing cabinet and lording above freelancers while he threw their checks down at them."

    Notice Howe has added the editorial comment
    "somewhat unlikely." I asked Sean about this brought to his attention a supporting quote from Adel Kurtzman:

    "Despite his young age, or perhaps as an over compensation for it, Stan Lee ran the Timely shop, with an iron hand. At 9:00 sharp a whistle was blown, and everyone was expected to jump into their respective tasks. One morning when Frank Giacoia was puffing a cigar and lingering over the morning paper Stan spotted him moments after the whistle. Giacoia was summarily sent home, and his pay docked for the day as an example. Stan might be perched cross-legged on a file cabinet, and employees were expected to bow to him as they entered, partly out of genuine arrogance."

    Sean told me he thought the Kurtzman quote was "interesting" but that was unconvinced by it because he'd never spoken to anyone who worked with Lee who described him as arrogant.

    Patrick Ford

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  4. BTW: Wood is of course commonly painted as a bitter drunk. And yet Wood used lots of assistants and none of them describe him as a jerk or someone who was hard to work for. In fact they all seem to like Wood a lot. So who was Wood angry and bitter towards? Well it would be number one Lee, and aside from that publishers and other editors.
    What is "funny" about this is people like Wood, and Kirby, and Ditko who are often described as "bitter" by their self described "greatest fans." Then these big fans will turn around and say Kirby, Ditko, and Wood got taken advantage of because they wouldn't stand up for their rights. And of course when they did stand up for their rights, criticize a publisher or editor or leave a company then they are described as bitter troublemakers who shot themselves in the foot. Oh, and "Stan made Wood famous by putting his name on the cover of Daredevil." DC hired Kirby in 1970 because Lee made him famous.
    I guess DC must have hired Sam Glanzman and Jim Apparo at around the same time because Lee made them famous?

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