SEVEN YEARS BEFORE Andy Kaufman made it to Carnegie Hall, the Spider-Man arrived. It was 1972, and Marvel Comics had licensed its characters to Steve Lember, described by Sean Howe, in his new book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, as a “shaggy-haired concert promoter.” (He does not grow beyond that description.) Lemberg’s magnum opus, his idea for breaking Marvel into the mainstream, was to rent a great theater for “an erudite evening of cataclysmic culture.”
His description was half right. The talent — the world’s tallest man, the drummer from The Beach Boys — was kitschy, goofy, and far less cool than Marvel itself. The entertainment was so lousy that the audience rebelled. “[Stan] Lee’s wife and daughter recited a poem Lee had written, ‘God Woke,’” recounts Howe. “A slide show spilled onto two screens, where crude projections clashed with the brightly colored Carnegie Hall drapes; a rock-and-roll trio of [Marvel employees] Roy Thomas, Herb Trimpe, and Barry Smith covered Elvis songs.”
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story brims with these oh-God-how-could-they moments. These have the quality of awkward high school photos now that the company is, as Howe puts it, a “virtual IP farm club” for Hollywood. Since 1999, when the fearless-vampire-killer epic Blade become the first Marvel adaptation to turn a real profit, the company’s characters have appeared onscreen in 24 different films. Even the bombs like Elektra and Punisher: War Zone sell on DVD. The Avengers, 2012’s tentpole film, asked audiences to prepare by watching six separate characters get introduced in five separate films. The result: Five hits, followed by the third-highest-grossing film of all time, right behind Avatar and Titanic.
Marvel’s rise to pop culture domination seems inevitable, yet it took generations. According to Howe, it’s a story of men who found geese that laid golden eggs, then accidentally slaughtered them, and then did this again and again until the pile of goose-corpses became a little embarrassing.
Howe is not the first reporter to tackle the story. Dan Raviv’s Comic Wars: Marvel’s Battle for Survival, 10 years old and largely forgotten, remains the best account of the Wall Street horse-trading and scamming that nearly killed the company in the 1990s. But Howe covers more ground, combining descriptions of the comics themselves with a lively history of the heroes and schmucks who made them.
The tale Howe tells begins in 1939, when Timely Comics (later to morph into Marvel) was printing up to 800,000 copies of its hits — including Marvel Comics and Captain America. Stanley Lieber wrote scripts, signing them “Stan Lee.” Jacob Kurtzberg, a.k.a. Jack Kirby, pioneered a pop art style of broad faces, muscled bodies and bounding heroes. The industry thrived, and Lee (more than Kirby) with it. But the magazine companies that owned these products lost interest. The good artists took on weirder assignments; would-be-moguls, like Lee, assumed that they were watching a fad die out. “It’s like a ship sinking,” Lee told a colleague when the magazine industry seemed to be moving on from comics, “and we’re the rats.”
Then, in 1961, Lee and Kirby published Fantastic Four #1. Howe gives the creators credit for taking the best of th...read more