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Book Review: Marvel Comics - the Untold Story

So when Sean Howe's Marvel Comics - the Untold Story was announced, my first thought was "Man, all i do in my spare time is read comics and write about comics. I don't want to also read about comics." Then, of course, i bought and read the book.

And it's really great. In many ways it's sort of a compendium of every unsourced tidbit from every fanzine on the subject of Marvel comics, and i missed out on all of that so i was really glad to have it all collected for me. It's a fascinating read and it gives me a lot of fodder with which to go back and update my Timeline project with some behind-the-scenes trivia. From that perspective alone, it's a useful book.

But it also becomes pretty clear early on that the agenda of the book is to highlight the creator rights problems inherent in a shared universe and work-for-hire situation. And it does a great job of building that case, unfortunately too late for Jack Kirby. Along with that the book contrasts the creative vs. business sides of Marvel and how both change over time with changes in popular and business culture. And it shows that the real goal from nearly the beginning has been to turn Marvel intellectual property into Hollywood movies, and it's interesting to see how that languished for so long.

I do have some quibbles, of course...

The first, and probably least important, is a "balance" issue. This was probably inevitable since it's sometimes anonymously unsourced and since the book couldn't be 30,000 pages. But some of the stories told, like the story of how Roger Stern and John Byrne quit Captain America, follows the John Byrne version (that it was because they wanted to do a two part story at a time when Shooter had declared all stories must be one-and-done) which has been contradicted by Stern and Shooter. There's a few others like that (including some details on the return of Kirby's art). I know i'm just reinforcing my Shooter-Booster reputation, but it's the fact that Shooter had a blog addressing these issues that made me aware of them and therefore wonder what else has been left out or written based on an interview with one off-the-record person.

On to more substantive concerns... One of the book's blindspots is the lack of correlation between the independence of the creator and the success of the characters. Without seemingly realizing it Sean Howe repeatedly contrasts the relative success of Marvel characters with the obscurity of independently owned creations, be it the Carl Burgos/Joe Simon/Myron Fass' attempt at some competition with Marvel in the mid-60s, Image's mere flash-in-the-pan success, or Marvel's own experiments with creator-owned books with Epic and Icon. This is relevant when looking at the ownership disputes raised in the book around characters like Blade and Ghost Rider. Would those characters even be worth disputing if it wasn't for the fact that they were incorporated into a shared universe and built upon by multiple creators? Howe doesn't address it.

The question is an important one because it points to the Catch-22 in these creator ownership issues. If the creators own the characters, they'll never be developed into icons popular enough for mass media (obviously there are exceptions to this, like Kick Ass and Walking Dead; not covered in the book). But if creators don't own them, they reap almost nothing of the benefits when the characters do achieve popularity. So how to solve that problem? Well, the solution for Stan Lee was for Marvel to effectively adopt him as a mascot. He didn't own the characters and didn't directly benefit from the exploitation of the characters and universe he co-created, but he was well compensated (including royalties) and kept on in various roles throughout Marvel's various incarnations. But obviously that's not sustainable. I'd argue something similar should have been done for Kirby and Ditko, but even that is a slippery slope. Solving this problem is outside the scope of this review but i was a little disappointed in the way these issues weren't addressed.

My other main complaint starts with the fact that about 3/4ths of the book cover everything up to the end of the Shooter years, and from there it's all kind of a blur as the business side of things starts to get much more directly involved in the creative side and the focus changes more on the financial dealings and ownerships and bankruptcy negotiations and away from the creative behind-the-scenes (beyond "we had to publish lots and lots of books regardless of quality to meet financial goals" which is admittedly a key takeaway). And that's unfortunate because buried in there is an important seeming blocker to success that's hinted at but never really covered satisfactorily, and that is (of course!) the question of continuity. A little earlier on there's a complaint about how the word "fan" comes from "fanatic" and the disappointment of some older creators that they aren't creating books for kids anymore (although that shift was Stan Lee's stated goal), and then there's this line:

Marvel knew that their core flagship properties were ill... The properties that they had, had just failed over and over again to sell to Hollywood... The idea that Captain America was frozen in ice for 50 years was laughable in Hollywood... asking the Talmudic continuity scholars in Marvel editorial to throw away the holy litany of Stan and Jack to satisfy Hollywood was having no effect at all, they just weren't getting anywhere.

Then there's Bill Jemas' quest to make the Marvel comics accessible to readers coming in from the X-Men movies and how that led him to want to throw away all Marvel continuity, which he instead backed away from in favor of creating the Ultimate line. Before that there was Heroes Reborn, also aborted. And there's the back-and-forth on Spider-Man's almost-reboot through the Clone Saga and then the real reboot through Mephisto. And this idea that the writers were held hostage to the fanbase:

Coordinating [promotion and tie-ins with the movies] with the comic books was easier said than done. Although the X-Men titles remained at the top of the charts, they were as much a creative battleground as ever, as a half-dozen succession writers complained of editorial micromanaging and rewriting. The editors, meanwhile insisted they were only listening to the fans, that letter-writing campaigns determined which characters stayed or departed. "What do the fans want?" one writer grumbled. "They want change. What happens when you give them change? It's not the change they wanted, and everybody wants things back the way they were?"

OK, but if business strategy was to get ready for an influx of new readers from the movies, why were the editors instead supposedly reacting to letter-writing campaigns from current readers? Why all these failed or contrived attempts at simplifying or wiping out continuity? The answer, not given in the book, is that the drastically reduced direct market fan base was all that Marvel could rely on at this point, and they were sticking around because of their attachment to the existing continuity. In reality no matter how popular the movies would be, that wasn't going to translate into an influx of new readers and Marvel couldn't afford to alienate their current customer base. It's literally THE story of the past 15 years or so at Marvel but it's not covered directly in Marvel Comics - the Untold Story.

Complaints aside - and even the fact that i can have these types of substantive complaints - the book is an engaging read. It ends on the relative high note of Marvel finally being successful with its movie attempts (although for me it doesn't make enough of the fact that the Cap movie does indeed use the "frozen in ice" origin" or that the Avengers movie was directed by Joss Whedon, who was quoted earlier in the book as saying he was leaving Astonishing X-Men because he had no idea if the characters he liked were going to be "dead, rebooted, Ultimated or wearing a black costume by the time I get to them") and it's a nice attempt at laying out a historical review of Marvel. I guess with my complaints i'm really saying i can't wait for the sequel so that Howe can expand on all these topics and the later years generally.

By fnord12 | October 26, 2012, 5:09 PM | Boooooks & Comics | Link

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