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REVIEW: 'Marvel Comics: The Untold Story' by Sean Howe


Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, the Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, Daredevil—these superheroes quickly won children's hearts and sparked the imaginations of pop artists, public intellectuals, and campus radicals. Over the course of a half century, Marvel's epic universe would become the most elaborate fictional narrative in history and serve as a modern American mythology for millions of readers.

Throughout this decades-long journey to becoming a multibillion-dollar enterprise, Marvel's identity has continually shifted, careening between scrappy underdog and corporate behemoth. As the company has weathered Wall Street machinations, Hollywood failures, and the collapse of the comic book market, its characters have been passed along among generations of editors, artists, and writers—also known as the celebrated Marvel "Bullpen." Entrusted to carry on tradition, Marvel's contributors—impoverished child prodigies, hallucinating peaceniks, and mercenary careerists among them—struggled with commercial mandates, a fickle audience, and, over matters of credit and control, one another.

For the first time, Marvel Comics reveals the outsized personalities behind the scenes, including Martin Goodman, the self-made publisher who forayed into comics after a get-rich-quick tip in 1939; Stan Lee, the energetic editor who would shepherd the company through thick and thin for decades; and Jack Kirby, the World War II veteran who'd co-created Captain America in 1940 and, twenty years later, developed with Lee the bulk of the company's marquee characters in a three-year frenzy of creativity that would be the grounds for future legal battles and endless debates.

Drawing on more than one hundred original interviews with Marvel insiders then and now, Marvel Comics is a story of fertile imaginations, lifelong friendships, action-packed fistfights, reformed criminals, unlikely alliances, and third-act betrayals—a narrative of one of the most extraordinary, beloved, and beleaguered pop cultural entities in America's history.


REVIEW:

Sean Howe offers readers an exhaustive behind the scenes look at the history of Marvel Comics starting with the days prior to the arrival of Stan Lee or Jack Kirby, names recognizable to even the most casual of comic book fans. Marvel Comics: The Untold History holds nothing back in retelling the dramatic ups and downs of an industry that seems to have always been 'just on death's door.' As the story moves from the its humble beginnings to the era of Lee's, Kirby's and Ditko's timeless creations and through new cycles of creators, creations, owners and readers, readers will see the major issues still faced by the industry today unfold in copyright battles, creator rights, licensing deal, fandom and corporate politics.

Though not a history of the fictional marvel universe, the book shows the parallel between industry creations and their creators, connecting key events from the Marvel Universe to those of the real world. The book is divided into 'eras' that usually accompany a change in leadership, which are often seen in the stories produced. Each period covered often comes down to creator vs corporation as readers watch the tug of war in each era between artists attempting to ply their craft and a business trying to make the most from the fruits of their labor.
When artists are turned loose to a point, they produced some of Marvel's most iconic stories; yet often if left to their own devices, those creators went too far from being commercial. On the flip side, when the business attempts to control and formulate the art, creativity and sales eventually suffer for it. It becomes apparent by the end that a delicate balance would serve best and yet due to speculator markets, may never be achieved.
Speculation has often been labeled as one of the major problems of the industry, whether it's the fans burning themselves out, or comic book companies milking a limited consumer base. No matter what the reason, it matters little when the all sides are making choices of their own free will. The driving force to make as much money as possible in the short term has time and again put the industry in a slump after a boom. Yet the cycle continues and neither the fans nor the peddlers seem to realize their consistent market size changes little. As we watch Marvel move from owner to owner, the real speculator damaging the industry becomes apparent: the business mogul. The constant push by corporate owners to drive up profit quarter to quarter in any way possible is often what brings Marvel to the brink of failure after every period of success. More than once through its history we see Marvel repeat the same mistakes as books were designed to 'satisfy quarterly financial reports' or licensing deals and not readers.

Anyone that has spent his or her time in a corporate environment will recognize the office drama this story is built on, and Sean Howe manages time and again to offer both sides of the story. You can easily understand both the frustration of an employee and the pressures of the editor, see the needs of a business conflicting with the freedom of art, while occasionally watching the ego that comes with success rear its ugly head on either side. For each person demonized by some, they are seen respected by others. Throughout it all though, Howe offers little pieces of each person's story so they become more than names on a page. Even if you aren't already familiar with some of the big names in Marvel's history or come into the book with your own preconceptions about them, you will feel for the people that put their heart and soul into a industry and often got little in return.

BOTTOM LINE:

You don't have to be a Marvel Comics reader to enjoy this book, but if you are it's a must read for a better look at the industry and its history. Sean Howe manages to weave detailed facts, gossip and quotes together in a story about success and failure of one of the most unique parts of the entertainment industry.



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Author: Sean Howe's Website
Sean Howe's Tumblr - can work as a companion to reading, offering classic images and blurbs out of Marvel's History.


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