Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Marvel Comics the Untold Story by Sean Howe

One of my rare non fiction reviews. This one is probably going to be a bit different, mainly because of my personal connection to a lot of the work in the book.

I've always liked comics. I first remember becoming attracted to superhero comics of the type Marvel produced via some fairly crudely done cartoons that used to screen here on TV in the mornings before school. There was the Spiderman show (still has one of the best theme songs ever: spins a web any size, catches thieves just like flies) they also did Captain America, the Hulk and Iron Man (on that note I'm pleased to see that the upcoming Iron Man 3 film actually uses the villain from those cartoons; The Mandarin). For some reason I never really looked at the comics in the local newsagent, I think I was too busy looking at the books. Then this second had store opened up. I swear to God the guy's name was Stan, he even looked a bit like Stan Lee. He had boxes of comics in this place. He had a two for one deal happening. Give him two and he'd give you one back. I had a bunch of comics that I got from a friend who had to get rid of them when his family moved, so I swapped them with Stan.

For some reason, maybe it was the influence of those cartoons, I always preferred Marvel comics to DC. Maybe it was the patter of Spiderman or the fact that the Marvel characters always seemed more real and were just more fun than those of the Distinguished Competitor. There was just something about Marvel that always appealed to me more than DC.

Fast forward a few years and I see this magazine called Howard the Duck. I remembered an advert for Howard in the Kiss comic (come on EVERYONE bought that when it came out) and I picked the magazine up. It was pretty funny and I liked it. It got cancelled a few issues after that, but I was hooked.

I became a bona fide collector not that long after reading that magazine, and probably remained one for the next ten to fifteen years. I'm not sure what my collection topped out at when I finally offloaded them all, but I estimate it would have been close to if not in excess of 1,000.

The back story of the company has always interested me. Sean Howe has been extensive in researching the early years. I knew most of it, but it put the story of Martin Goodman and Timely comics and how his cousin aspiring novelist Stanley Lieberman came to work for the line into perspective.

The story about Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent and how it very nearly destroyed the comics industry is also always worth a read, if only to marvel at how much influence Wertham's fairly hysterical publication had on culture at the time. Interestingly Geoffrey Wagner's Parade of Pleasure rarely gets mentioned, but it helped Seduction of the Innocent get the now notorious Comics Code established.

Where the book really got interesting for me was when it moved into the 70's and early 80's, because this was when I started to get interesting and collect the books. So many of the names jumped out at me and I remembered opening up the new issue of whatever title and seeing those names credited with creating what I was reading.

I clearly remember the Shooter Years (when Jim Shooter was the head honcho at Marvel) and the stories that I and other collectors swapped about Big Bad Jim. It was fascinating to see the truth behind some of the rumours and then on other occasions realise how on the money that we; a bunch of fanboys in Australia where we got the books weeks to months after they first hit the streets in the US, often were.

I felt that when the book moved into the corporate 90's and 2000's that it lost a little. The narrative became more about the corporate wheeling and dealing than the books and the creators, and that didn't really interest me, it may have also been that I was pretty much out of the mainstream loop by this stage, and while I still visited a local comic store regularly I tended to gravitate more to independents like Dave Sim's Cerebus or Jeff Smith's Bone, and I only occasionally dipped into a mainstream title if it interested me for some reason or other.

It is a good exercise for anyone interested in the medium to contrast where Marvel and the guy who's been associated with the company almost since it's start and been it's public face since the early 1960's when he and friend and co creator Jack Kirby rejuvenated a failing industry with their ideas and attitude Stan Lee, was and where it is now. It's also a sobering thing to wander into a comics shop, think about some of the titles you've just read about and then look at what is on the shelf now. Wolverine and the X-Men (what? He's an X-Man, not THE X-Men. I love him and understand how popular he is, but the idea is that he is part of a team, not the entire team. It's almost like the rest of them are just his sidekicks now) and the Superior Spiderman. I wonder what it is about that particular title that makes it so much better than all the other ones that bear the name Spiderman on them? But I digress and I'm sounding like a grumpy former collector here.

Sean Howe focussed a lot on Howard the Duck and his creator Steve Gerber. I liked this, because as I have said Howard is what drew me to the world of the collector really, but to be honest the book was never that successful and very few people really understood what Gerber was about and he didn't ever achieve the sort of success that made him the thorn he appeared be in Marvel's side almost from the time he was removed from doing Howard's book back in it's original four colour days.

Maybe because I gravitated into the market, but there was very little mention of the independent market and the impact that had on the big two's sales. Maybe it genuinely wasn't that much, but now if you look at the racks there are as many independents as there are large company publications at least there is where I browse the racks. Online publishing could have also been spoken about more, but maybe it's a bit early for that, but the impact of the internet on the industry and the collector could certainly have been dealt with at more length, it was largely a footnote.

Those issues aside this a fantastic read for anyone who has more than a passing interest in comics, and I think if handled right it would make a great film along the lines of The Social Network. There is every bit as much drama and unbelievability off the page as there ever has been on it, even if the heroes behind the scenes don't wear flashy costumes and stage battles on the street using super powers.

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