Page Turners

Marvel Comics the Untold Story is an Enlightening Bummer


It’s been a while since I’ve checked out some non-fiction here on Page Turners, and I figured I’d stay on brand and read some history that doesn’t really matter. And in that spirit I decided to finally plunge into a book about the history of one of my favorite sources of stories, Marvel Comics. This book actually came out a couple years ago, and it’s been sitting on my shelf the entire time. I just kept hearing about how great it was, and how it delivered a really in depth and revealing insight on how some of the most recognizable and important characters of the twentieth century were formed, but I got the book at the exact time that I started using a Kindle to read books, and just kind of let this physical book sit by the wayside. But no longer! Marvel has always been important to me, and I figured it was high time that I actually learned something about the company that gave me so many great characters. As I’ve evolved as a comics reader I’ve gradually learned more and more about what goes into making them. When it began I was just reading for characters. I liked Spider-Man so I looked for Spider-Man comics, regardless of where the stories fell into continuity. Then I started focusing on reading them in order, learning the progress of the character. After that I started to differentiate between writers and artists, and specifically seek out stories written by particular writers I enjoyed. And now I’ve reached the point that I’m learning about the editorial process and the history of the writers, learning about the inner workings of the company.

The book is pretty straight-forward, and it’s always a little hard to discuss the “plots” of non-fiction books. It really just tells the story of Marvel Comics, from creation to 2013 when it was published. We get to see the start of the genre, and the beginning of the Marvel legacy when Carl Bugos created the Human Torch in 1939 for Timely Comics. From there one thing leads to another and we trace the history of comic books. We see how the proto-Marvel rode high during World War II with Captain America, then fall flat when the industry burst following the war. But everything turned around when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby decided to create The Fantastic Four by combining basically every popular form of comic book at the time. And it worked. They ended up ushering in the Marvel Age of comics, introducing classic character after classic character, all of which managed to differentiate themselves from the DC competition. The characters of Marvel weren’t all-powerful and morally superior gods, they were flawed human who dealt with real issues in between beating up supervillains. And it clicked.

Once the groundwork was laid the company began to get more and more popular and the book expertly examined every shift in power. We learn about the good times and the bad, when we would hear about the classic creators hanging out in the Marvel Bullpen, crafting the classic foundational stories of the company, and the lean times when the creators were all bickering, being stabbed in the back by the owners of the company, and being laid off. We learn about star creators, reliable workhorses, and the fact that basically everyone but Jack Kirby had no guarantee that they were going to stick around. Time change, the company chased various trends, they lead the industry, and they fell behind. We see owner after owner take over the company and quickly realize they have no idea  what they’re doing, often to disastrous results. We learn about all of the behind-the-scenes drama that helped create and destroy some of our favorite stories and characters.

And I really enjoyed it. The book was very well-written and helped give serious insight into a company that has produced so many memories for me. As time has gone on I’ve learned more and more about the creators behind my favorite characters, but this book really dove in deep and showed me the nitty-gritty of the company. Which was kind of a bummer. There were a lot of great anecdotes and things I learned about the company, but there were also some really revealing moments that kind of destroyed my mental pictures of these creators. Because time and time again that so many of these classic stories that we can all still talk about and obsess over were just done for paychecks. So few of these creators actually seemed to give that much of a crap about the characters or the stories they were creating. It was just a job. Which shouldn’t have shocked me. I’m not sure why I was so idealistic about these things, thinking that these people were creating art because they just really wanted to tell stories about heroes, and not for the money, but I guess I was. Which isn’t to say that I’m sad I read the book. Quite the contrary. I learned a lot about the industry, and the economic realities that create it, and while it shattered certain naive illusions I held about the company, it also lead to a lot of really great discoveries, and helped humanize some of these creators that have been held in god-like opinion.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story was written by Sean Howe, 2013.

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